Posted by: rcottrill | October 28, 2013

Angels We Have Heard on High

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Words: a traditional French carol, Les Anges dans Nos Campagnes, (“The Angels in Our Countryside”) translated by James Chadwick (b. Apr. 24, 1813; d. May 14, 1882)
Music: Gloria (or Barnes), an old French carol melody, arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes (b. Sept. 14, 1887; d. Feb. 14, 1958)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: This popular carol, whose original author is unknown, was likely written in French in the 1700’s. The French version begins:

Les anges dans nos campagnes
Ont entonné l’hymne de cieux,
Et l’echo de nos montagnes
Redit ce chant mélodieux:
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

James Chadwick published his English translation in 1862. The carol is macaronic, meaning part of it is in one language and part in another, with the Latin of the chorus quoting the angels’ words, “Glory to God in the highest.” The rather monotonous melody is helped somewhat by the rolling glorias in the refrain (great for singing in parts).

CH-1) Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Each of the first three stanzas of this hymn speak of the Christmas angels singing. This is a common assumption behind a number of our Christmas hymns, for example in Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Angels from the Realms of Glory, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, and Silent Night. So, do angels really sing? Yes, that is indicated elsewhere in the Scriptures. God Himself tells us that at creation:

“The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:4, 7).

There the Hebrew poetic form uses parallelism, in which “the sons of God” (angelic beings, in Job) and “the morning stars” likely refer to the same thing. Also, in heaven, four “living creatures” (elsewhere called cherubim) accompany the saints when they sing praises to God (Rev. 5:8-10).

Music may in fact be a common language of heaven. But what about the Christmas angels? It would certainly have been appropriate for them to sing at such a momentous event, and the wording of Luke Chapter 2 allows at least the possibility. Verse 13 speaks of the heavenly host “praising God and saying.” The Greek verb aineo means to praise. But it can also mean to sing praises. And “saying” (lego in Greek) is not restricted to talking. It simply means to declare or affirm. Thus we could have,

“There was…a multitude of the heavenly host singing praises to God, declaring, ‘Glory to God in the highest…’”

The Greek word for “glory” is doxa, which gives us the familiar word doxology. It stands for praise, honour and worship. And God is acclaimed in the angel’s declaration from the highest heaven down to the humblest of the human family on earth for the wonder of the incarnation. Williams New Testament has, “Glory to God in highest heaven! And peace on earth to men who please him.”

Williams follows some versions that put the oneness on individuals to be rightly related to God in order to enjoy His peace. However, the other reading also has its adherents: that, by the grace of God, His favour is bestowed upon all, at least potentially, through Christ.

One commentator calls vs. 14 a “sublime hymn,” adding that the structure suggests responsive (or antiphonal) singing, with parts of the choir responding to one another, filling the heavens with music. One group of angels would perhaps sing, “Glory to God in the highest,” and another would answer with, “And on earth peace,” with perhaps a third adding, “Good will toward men.” That would have been wonderful to hear!

CH-3) Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

CH-4) See Him in a manger laid,
Jesus, Lord of heav’n and earth!
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
With us sing our Saviour’s birth.

1) Why would all in heaven rejoice at the news of the Saviour’s birth?

2) What is your favourite Christmas carol?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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