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The Octagon Parish

The Gloria

 

The choir sang the setting of the Gloria from the Mass of St Thomas.

 

Speaker The Ven. Mervyn Banting.


Glory to God in the highest,

and peace to his people on earth.

Lord God, heavenly King,

almighty God and Father,

we worship you, we give you thanks,

we praise you for your glory.

 

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,

Lord God, Lamb of God,

you take away the sing of the world,

have mercy on us;

your are seated at the right hand of the Father;

receive our prayer.

 

For you alone are the Holy One,

you alone are the Lord,

You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ,

with the Holy Spirit

In the glory of God the Father.

 

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It may be that we sing or say the ‘Gloria’ more often than the other New Testament canticles simply because it forms part of the Communion Service.

 

The wording varies depending on whether we use the BCP or the Common Worship version.

 

‘Glory be to God on high, and in earth peace, good will towards men.’

Or

‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.

 

Where does it come from and do we know who wrote it?

I don’t think we know who wrote it. What we do know is that it goes back to the earliest centuries of the Church’s life, very probably having its origin in the words that St Luke gives us as the angels’ song in his story about the shepherds.

 

‘and suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest ad on earth peace, good will toward men’

 

Scholars will argue forever about what comes first but I like to think that St Luke included the beautiful story about shepherds and angels in his account of the nativity of Jesus and Christians in the years following built a morning hymn around the angels’ words.

 

It would have been written in Greek for those first centuries. And in the Greek church it was not used in the Eucharist but at the dawn service of praise. In the 4th century it was discovered and translated into Latin by Bishop Hilary of Poitiers. And then, as time went by, in the Western Church it gradually found its place in the Eucharist as an opening song of praise between the introduction and the readings.

 

Throughout the middle ages it had this same place near the beginning of the Eucharist. But then the Reformation came and the Book of Common Prayer in which the ‘Gloria’ was moved to the end of the service just before the Blessing. There are arguments in favour of both positions and I will say a bit more about that in a moment. However 20th century liturgical revision, culminating in Common worship, has seen the ‘Gloria’ moved back to its original position near the beginning of the service.

 

This very ancient song of praise works for us rather as does an ancient church building. We can reflect on the centuries of worship that have taken place in a church such as this. Similarly we can reach back in our imagination, hearing these words – the words of the angels – sung by Christians in different places and in different languages over probably 2000 years.

 

St Luke wrote his gospel in Greek and that was the language of the church in the early centuries. We think of Constantinople and the Christian East. Then these words were brought to Rome and sung in Latin as the hymn found its place in the liturgy of the western church. And since the 16th century the angels have sung in English and, of course, in a huge number of other languages. And, of course, as this evening we have added beautiful musical settings as we heard just now.

 

And so, let’s read through these wonderful words again, conscious of their continuing place in the praise of the church.

 

 

The Gloria is composed of three sections, beginning with words that echo those of the angels in St Luke’s story

 

Glory be to God on high, and in earth peace, good will towards men’

 

We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we give thanks to thee for thy great glory, O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.

 

The shepherds stood aghast as the heavenly chorus praised their creator and promised peace.

 

Now I have two contrasting but equally wonderful images associated with these words.

 

First, there is the wonder of a clear, dark night sky covered with countless spots of light. In the 1st or the 21st centuries this is an awesome experience that places us alongside the shepherds. For Luke the stars are divine messengers bringing the promises of peace and good will for a troubled world. The child whose birth is celebrated is to be the means of delivering that promise to humanity throughout history.

 

And secondly, quite different but as wonderful, we all treasure many school and church nativity plays, with their squadrons of angels, small children in all sorts of sparkly costumes, full of life and love and unable to stay still for a moment. We thank and praise God for this Garden of Eden, for the stars and for the children. We thank God for the promise that it is to be a place of happiness and peace for all.

 

The middle section of this hymn is rather different. Whereas the opening words of praise are addressed to God the Father and Creator, now we address the second person of the Trinity in words of a darker tone.

 

O Lord, the only-begotten Son Jesu Christ, O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

 

Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

 

Thou that takes away the sins of the world, receive our prayer

 

Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.

 

If the ‘Gloria’ begins with our thanks for life and this world to live in, we now confront the human sin which can spoil it all. Our words remind us that Jesus is the ‘lamb’, the sacrificial lamb whose love for us takes away our sin. Like me, you may have found this part of the ‘Gloria’ repetitive and obsessed with sin. The medieval and the modern versions have simply two phrases on the taking away of our sin. Thomas Cranmer’s version in the Book of Common Prayer has four! Those 16th century reformers were obsessed with sin, perhaps with good reason. But certainly, if we use the Book of Common Prayer we are to end the service and return to our daily lives praying repeatedly that we will be forgiven our sins.

 

 

Then there is another change of address and the ‘Gloria’ comes to a conclusion with words that assert our ‘Trinitarian’ experience of God.

 

For thou only art holy, thou only art the Lord, thou only O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father, Amen.

 

We are addressing Christ, who alone, with the Holy Ghost, shares in the Glory of God the Father.

 

 

Before concluding I need to return briefly to an issue I have already mentioned, the two places occupied by the ‘Gloria’ in different versions of our liturgy – near the beginning between the introduction and the readings for most of its history, and at the end just before the blessing in the Book of Common Prayer version of the Eucharist.

 

The historic position near the beginning of the service prefaces the dramatic action of the Eucharist with a note of wonder, joy and hope that in this ‘holy communion’, in the sharing of the bread and wind, we will be received at the Lord ’s Table, blessed and restored. The collect and readings that immediately follow spell out more fully the promise that god has made for our restoration and forgiveness.

 

In contrast something else is going on when the ‘Gloria’ is placed at the end, particularly when the penitential section is double in length.

 

In contrast the ‘Gloria’ just before the blessing looks back on the Eucharistic action and focuses on the sacrificial nature of Christ’s self offering. Then we are sent out into this wicked world praying that we may be forgiven and our sins taken from us. I would be intrigued to know which position for the ‘Gloria’ you think is the better.

 

 

Although referring to the two places in which the ‘Gloria’ has been placed, I have generally used the BCP words. I will finish by reading the ‘Gloria’ again, this time using the words from Common Worship which are almost identical to those sung by the choir this evening.

 

Glory to God in the highest,

and peace to his people on earth.

Lord God, heavenly King,

almighty God and Father,

we worship you, we give you thanks,

we praise you for your glory.

 

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,

Lord God, Lamb of God,

you take away the sing of the world,

have mercy on us;

your are seated at the right hand of the Father;

receive our prayer.

 

For you alone are the Holy One,

you alone are the Lord,

You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ,

with the Holy Spirit

In the glory of God the Father.

 

Organ Recital: Malcolm Brinson played a setting of the Gloria by Mark Goddard.

 

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