The Gloria is one of the oldest hymns sung by the Church. It was first sung by the angels the night that Christ was born in Bethlehem. Although no one quite knows who composed the rest of the lyrics for the Gloria, we can trace the hymn back to the third century of the Church. Tradition holds that it was first composed as a prayer in the East, and translated to Latin by Saint Hilary of Poitiers around the year 360.
In today’s liturgy, before the opening collect in the Mass, the congregation joins the priest in singing the Gloria. What’s amazing about this beautiful hymn is that it has ancient roots and it wasn’t always part of the Catholic Mass.
Biblical roots of the Gloria
Historically, the Gloria is known as the “Angelic Hymn” because it contains the words sung from the Heavens by the angels on the night of Christ’s birth. Luke 2:13 reads: “And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
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Although we’re used to singing the Gloria at church, the ancient hymn wasn’t always part of the liturgy. “This hymn was not originally part of the Mass but was probably sung as the Te Deum is today, as a thanksgiving hymn for feasts and celebration,” Monsignor Charles Pope wrote in his book, The Mass in Slow Motion.
The Gloria at Mass
Text of the Gloria was first found in Greek and Syrian sources, where it was sung as an Easter hymn at dawn, and at the conclusion of morning prayer. It more than likely entered the west through Gaul. By the sixth century it had been incorporated into the Papal Christmas Mass.
The Gloria was introduced into Sunday Masses and feast days of martyrs – but only when a bishop presided. Priests were only allowed to say the Gloria on the Easter Vigil. But by the eleventh century, the Gloria was being sung at all the Sunday Masses and feast days.
In his book The Mystery of Faith: A Study of the Structural Elements of the Order of the Mass, Lawrence Johnson writes about how the Gloria has come down to Catholics today as part of the treasury of early hymns written about the Psalms and other Biblical passages. “The Gloria is a hymn-anthem containing a series of acclamations. The text today mentions all three persons of the Trinity; this Trinitarian characteristic is even more pronounced in some of the hymns early text.”
A new translation
In 2011, Catholics in the United States who attended the Ordinary Form of the Mass experienced a major change to many parts of the Mass translation. It was the first major change in the translation since the Ordinary Form was introduced in 1969. The translation was conducted by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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Many minor textual translations were clarified in the new translation of the Gloria. For instance, at the beginning of the Gloria, the faithful now say or sing, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace to people of good will!” This is a place in the Gloria where the Biblical roots of the prayer are emphasized. In another section, the congregations says or sings, “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory!” this is a five-fold invocation of praise, which emphasizes the majesty and amazing glory of God.
A beautiful, ancient prayer
The Gloria is a beautifully ancient prayer that is meant to point our hearts towards a spirit of awe. It reminds us, gathered in the pews of the church, that we are called to praise and glorify the maker of our hearts and souls.
“We are singing now for the same reason the angels sang; namely, that God has sent his Son among us born in our same flesh. Humble and lowly he comes among us , and so, struck with awe at this unexpected shape of the divine plan, as the angels themselves were, we cry out in a hymn to God’s glory,” writes Father Jeremy Driscoll O.S.B. in his book What Happens at Mass.
We sing the Gloria because it is a song of absolute joy and praise to God – what better way to start the Mass then to glorify God!