The Story Behind “Angels We Have Heard On High”

Adoration of the Sheperds, by Carlo Maratti (1625-1713)

Today’s selection is a bit long but this hymn, “Angels We Have Heard On High,” has a long history that may go back to the apostolic age. This song reaches back to a time when Christmas was a holiday celebrated by monks in a very austere manner. They sung their songs to the neglect of the world from their monastic bubbles. Yet this song also does a great service to us by taking scriptures and masterfully transforming them into verse.

Angels We Have Heard on High” was first published in 1855 in the French songbook Nouveau recueil de cantiques, and records indicate that the song had been used in church masses for more than fifty years before that publication. During those five decades the lyrics were coupled with the melody that is still used today. Except for the verses translated into languages other than French, today the song is sung just as it was a hundred and fifty years ago. Yet for maybe a thousand years or more before that, monks probably sang this same song as they celebrated the birth of the Savior. The story may well be as old as the church itself.

The song’s four verses embrace the angels’ visit to the lowly shepherds and the shepherds’ response. For many biblical scholars, the angels coming to men who worked menial jobs in the fields and informing them of the birth of the Son of God symbolizes that Christ came for all people, rich or poor, humble or powerful. The angels’ words in Luke 2, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people,” paired with Jesus’ own parables concerning shepherds and their flocks, symbolizes that it would be the common man and not kings or religious leaders who would first carry the story of Jesus’ life to the masses.

But while the shepherds’ story of why they came to see the babe in the manger is easily identified in all the stanzas, for many who sing this old song, the chorus is an enigma. “Gloria in excelsis Deo” means, in English, “Glory to God in the highest,” a phrase that played an important part of worship at church masses dating back to 130 A.D. During that period, Pope Telesphorus issued a decree that on the day of the Lord’s birth all churches should have special evening services. He also ordered that, at these masses, after the reading of certain Scripture or the conclusion of specific prayers, the congregation should always sing the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Historical church documents reveal that monks carried this executive order throughout the land and that by the third century it was a practice used by most churches at Christmas services.

It can be argued that if the chorus was written within a hundred years of Christ’s birth, the roots of “Angels We Have Heard on High” might go back to someone who actually knew Jesus when he walked on earth. Though unproved, it is a very interesting and inspiring idea and ties in to the selfless image of a called member of the clergy bringing faith alive in order to spread the message of Jesus Christ’s birth, life, and death.

Another facet of this carol that would seem to tie at least its chorus to the very early Catholic church is the range of notes found in the chorus. While most modern carols move up and down and cover at least an octave and a half, thus testing the upper or lower limits of the average singer, the phrase “Gloria in excelsis Deo” barely moves at all. In addition, the melody used by the song never strays more than one octave and the verse moves through only six notes. This simplicity seems to tie the melody to early chants used by monks and taught to their congregations…

So why has this carol of unknown origin remained so popular for so long? Though the tune may be considered monotonous, when the simple text is read it becomes obvious that few Christmas songs so fully describe the joy that the world felt when a Savior was born in Bethlehem. The lyrics don’t just ask the singer to lift up his or her eyes and heart in wonder and observe the beauty of what God has given the world, they demand it. There can be no doubt that whoever wrote “Angels We Have Heard on High” not only believed the words found in the Bible, but relished that belief.

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