Gloria in excelsis Deo
The third in our series of sermons on the Mass: preached by Fr Dominic Jacob on 18th September 2011:
Last week, you may remember, Br Nicholas helped us to consider the significance and the purpose of the Confiteor, the acknowledgement of our sinfulness and our need of forgiveness. Today, the mood of the liturgy shifts, modulating from the minor key of the Kyrie to the brighter major tone of the Gloria.
Of course, you recognise the opening words as those which heralded the birth of Our Lord at Bethlehem. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of goodwill.”
Originally included as part of the Midnight Mass at Christmas as early as the 2nd Century, this hymn was sung by the bishop alone; gradually, as the text was expanded, it was given to the priest to chant, and finally, once it developed into the triumphant shout of Praise we know, it came to be said or sung at every festal Mass by everyone. “The angels themselves,” wrote Dom Gueranger, gave the pitch; and the Church, led as she is by the same Holy Spirit, continued the angels words.”
One saint remarked that “we should not seek in the Gloria a logical progression of ideas. It is, rather, an impulsive succession of acclamations and words of praise, that spring forth unplanned from soul. Faith, the freedom of prayer, and a love that knows how to weave all things together; these are the only rules.” (Bl Hyacinth Cormier O.P) I like this concept of spontaneity, but it has to be said that, there is, in fact, a very definite shape or order in the Gloria. There is an Introduction and three parts following, in which God is praised as Trinity.
The introduction includes the Angel’s Song which contains “Our Lord’s plan of redemption, the purpose of which,” Parsch states, “is to restore to God that glory which was outraged by sin, and to bring to man the blessings of Messianic peace.” In this sense, it could be said that we celebrate Christmas - the Incarnation of Christ - at every mass, since the same Holy Child Jesus who was born at Bethlehem comes to our altars, though in the form of bread and wine; his purpose remains the same: Glory to God in the highest and peace to people of goodwill.
The first part of the Gloria is a cry of praise and thanksgiving to God the Father. One writer I consulted (Theodor Schnitzler) likened this to the Triumph accorded Roman Emperors and generals on their return from War. Along the crowd-lined route of the via triumphalis, massed choirs would sing out the titles and glories of these heroes and leaders. More and more titles were called out to them in jubilation as they passed by: an echo of this can easily be seen in the group: “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you. Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father.” And in addition to praising God, we give thanks too, and not for any good he may have done us, nor for any particular gift he may have given. “We give you thanks for your great glory.” We express our gratitude to the Lord simply for being God and not for any benefit or grace we may have gained from him. It seems an amazing thing to me, reminding us of our duty toward the Almighty, that we should love Him first because He is our God and not for what we may hope to get from Him. Something we ought, perhaps, to remember in our human relationships too.
The second part of the Gloria is addressed to Our Lord and, again, calls to mind God’s plan of redemption. “Redemption is the purpose of his coming, and the purpose, too, of the Mass.” (Parsch)
Note how Jesus is addressed, first by his name, and then his titles of honour: “Lord...Christ, Only Begotten Son, Lord God...Son of the Father” and also by the title given him by John the Baptist: “Lamb of God”, which brings to mind, our reason for being here at Mass, the celebration of the Sacrifice which “takes away the sins of the world”. In the Mass we stand at the foot of the Cross, humbly asking the Lamb of God to take away our sins, to have mercy on us and to receive our prayer. I think that we also stand beside St John on the island of Patmos and share something of his tremendous vision of the Lamb of God, slain but now standing in the presence of God the Father, victorious and worthy of all worship and honour and blessing. “For you alone are the holy One, you alone are the lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ.” The Victim is also the Victor, for in the Mass we also celebrate the glory of the resurrection, Christ’s triumph over death.
And finally, the Gloria reaches its conclusion, in which brief praise is given to the Holy Spirit “in the glory of God the Father” rather as in the Doxology at the end of the Canon. Both are Trinitarian and praise the mystery of our God who is known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: creator, redeemer and sanctifier.
The joy of the Gloria, coming so soon after the plaintive Kyrie, reminds us of two vitally important truths about ourselves: Our very real need of redemption and the knowledge that we have been redeemed. Knowing our weakness and our poverty is truly humbling, but our faith in the Redemption won for us by Christ, makes us aware of our Christian dignity as the beloved children of God.
It is said of St Philip, that on the day of his death he celebrated Mass privately with such joy that at the Gloria he began to sing - “and he sang the whole of it with the greatest joy and devotion, and all the rest of the mass he said with extraordinary exultation, and as if singing.” (Bacci)
St Philip was able to do this, because he believed in the power of Christ’s redeeming act - similarly, were we to believe as he did, then not only the Gloria, but our whole Mass, indeed our entire life would be utterly transformed into something of remarkable power and beauty!