My very first memory of this song is from a tinny-sounding interactive sound book of holiday carols—you know the ones with the panel down the side sporting battery-operated pictures you could push to play something? I can still picture it perfectly, with a cover showing tons of gold spray-painted ornaments behind a giant angel and little cherub faces on the song panel. The book had lyrics with some musical notation so you could sing along with the recorded music, which got progressively more out of tune as I played them over and over and the equipment simply wore out. These were the days before digital, after all.
“Angels We Have Heard on High” was one of those songs, and it remains one of my favorites to sing for the sheer joy of singing. Even if you have no idea what “excelsis Deo” means or where exactly that is that we should be putting Gloria there, the roller coaster of melody on that chorus is just a fun thing to do with your voice. After you realize you have no air left for the excelsis, that is.
Again, I’ve unintentionally continued the traveling theme, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s just a constant for Christmas songs in general. (And also Advent, ad venio, which means “I come to”; hello somebody, as my marvelous district superintendant would say.) I mean, there was a lot of traveling going on—Mary and Joseph were traveling, the kings were traveling, the shepherds were traveling (not very far, but still), the angels were traveling (maybe? Not sure how they work with dimensional things like distance. Maybe they have a Tardis?). But this, like O Come, All Ye Faithful, calls to us to travel. It’s actually a nice story arc of a song; we heard these angels, and then we’re asking the shepherds why they’re excited, and then we’re exhorted to travel, and then we see the Baby for which we’ve traveled. Progression, and sense, which is not always apparent in some of the older carols.
Then there’s this chorus, which is in Latin, if you didn’t know. I love that holiday stuff stays in Latin a lot, as if that adds charm or something by being unintelligible to most of the populace singing it. It means “glory to God in the highest”—well, translated in its order it means “glory in the highest to God,” and I have no idea why a lot of publishers/typists insist on the comma after “gloria.” That makes it “glory, in the highest to God.” Perhaps if they had another comma after “excelsis”? In any case, that’s the chorus. Angels are singing. Glory to God in the highest! Shepherds, what’s up? Glory to God in the highest! Come, there’s a new kid in town. Glory to God in the highest! Hanging out with Mary and Joseph. Glory to God in the highest! (Glooooooooooooooory, in the highest, to God!)
Lot of praise going on. And why not? There are angels, yo! Actual angels, as in celestial beings that may or may not have their own inner light source like living LED lamps. Hanging out. Telling some half-asleep shepherds to go to this nowhere town, Bethlehem. Shepherds, why this jubilee? I would start with “the shiny light being didn’t strike me dead,” for one thing, because God did that sometimes.
But then—well, then, we realize there is something going on that’s so big even the mountains are singing it. And sure, you can go with the fact that mountains echo things because that’s what they do and sound travels in a specific way around non-porous material, but still. Even the rocks will cry out, right? A Really Big Deal just happened, in a very not-big-deal town, at night, in the middle of a government census. People have other things on their minds, God. And You send your angels to shepherds? Really? In an age of networking and flashy websites and the Need for Good Marketing, God fails utterly. He would be the company with Clip Art on its website and no Facebook page, by these standards.
Joy, however, is a pretty powerful force, and some of the coolest parts of this story, this birth for which we are still impatiently waiting in the week before Christmas, in this season of Advent, are that it was totally improbable and not (from a human standpoint) terribly well planned. Yet it includes everybody, from the mountains to the shepherds to your Great-Aunt Lou to you to me—yes, even us, Reader. We get to hang out with angels, we get to sing their songs and live the experience because we get to go see this new King, born in a town that’s about to get a huge tourism boost. Perhaps we don’t literally go to this stable every year now (2,000 years of annual birth would be a bit much to ask of Mary, after all), but we are still called to be part of this, called to this wonder that absolutely should not have worked. We hear the angels and sing glory because really, what else is there to do? Even in a broken world, is not the beautiful still worth our joyous song?
The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Miryam, for you have found favor with God. Look! You will become pregnant, you will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Yeshua. He will be great, he will be called Son of Ha‘Elyon. ADONAI, God, will give him the throne of his forefather David; and he will rule the House of Ya‘akov forever — there will be no end to his Kingdom.” (Luke 1:30-31, CJB)