Father Matthew Buettner: Gloria in excelsis Deo - We praise God
The Mass is the greatest prayer of the Church. As the highest act of prayer, the Mass teaches us how to pray.
The first movement of the heart in prayer is humility and so we enter into the Mass by first calling to mind our sins and seeking the Divine Mercy of God in the Penitential Act. Only then, only after acknowledging our need for forgiveness and only after pursuing the abundant mercy that God supplies in our need, are we able to sing for joy in the ancient hymn of the Gloria. And so, the Mass teaches us that prayer begins with humility and moves to praise, adoration and gratitude to God: after the Penitential Act follows the Gloria.
Monsignor Ronald Knox explains that, "...the general point of [the Gloria], coming where it does, is that we try to cheer ourselves up, after all the groveling, by reminding ourselves and reminding Almighty God that human nature has been raised to something altogether higher, ever since Our Lord took human nature upon Himself, and that if we unite our prayers with the prayer of our Incarnate Lord, we can, in spite of everything, make our prayers worth looking at."
There is not a single word in the Gloria that is not also found in Scripture, in the letters of St. Paul or in the writings of St. John. It is one of the oldest Christian hymns. The earliest records of the first Christians, dating as far back as the early second century, refer to singing the angelic hymn, known as the "Gloria in excelsis Deo" ("Glory to God in the highest") before the Sacrifice of the Mass. From the very beginning, singing the Gloria was particularly appropriate during the Christmas season, since the opening words of the hymn were sung by the angels after the birth of Our Lord. Later evidence shows that the Gloria was given wider range to be sung at Sunday Masses throughout the year, but only when the bishop offered Mass. It wasn't until almost the 12th century that the Gloria was extended to every Sunday Mass offered by priests, as well as bishops.
The Gloria is composed of three main parts and refers to the three Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Here is the revised translation we will begin using this November:
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise You,
we bless You,
we adore You,
we glorify You,
we give You thanks for Your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King,
O God, almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
You take away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us;
You take away the sins of the world,
Receive our prayer;
You are seated at the right hand of the Father,
Have mercy on us.
For You alone are the Holy One,
You alone are the Lord,
You alone are the Most High,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father.
The first section praises the Father, beginning with the words of the angels to the shepherds after the birth of Our Lord: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will. The hymn continues to praise God with redundant exuberance: "We praise You, we bless You, we adore You, we glorify You, we give You thanks for Your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father."
In other parts of the Mass, we thank and praise God for what He has accomplished. But here in the Gloria, we thank God for who He is, not for what He does. The second section of the Gloria is addressed to the eternal Son of God: "Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son, Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us; You take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer; You are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us." Again, we praise the Son of God firstly for who He is, then for what He has accomplished. Only after recognizing the divine identity of the Son can we petition Him to "receive our prayer."
The hymn surges to its height and then to its completion as we move to the third section that includes reference to the Holy Spirit: "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. Amen." Thus completes the hymn of praise and adoration of the Blessed Trinity.
It is important to note that we do not sing the Gloria during the two penitential seasons of the Church year – Advent and Lent – as a communal fast in preparation for Christmas and Easter.
Following the Gloria, the Introductory Rites of the Mass reach their summit in the Opening Collect or Prayer. After we have approached God the Father in humility to seek His mercy and praised Him for his glory, we now approach Him in petition or supplication. The celebrant, speaking on behalf of the Church, collects the intentions of the day's sacrifice. He begins, "Let us pray."
Here, the celebrant invites the Church to join him in petitioning the Lord. There is a brief moment of silence to allow us the opportunity to collect our petitions and intentions. The celebrant extends his hands in prayer, known as the "orans position," the typical prayer posture for the early Christians or for those who are in petition or supplication. The prayer may express an attribute or characteristic of the saint who is honored on a particular feast day, express the tone of a particular liturgical season, or simply draw together and bind various petitions to the Mass.
Monsignor Knox suggests that these collects join our thoughts and concerns into a brief "telegram": "...just for once, now that we are all together, let us send a joint message of salutation to Almighty God; exiles thinking about home." The faithful participate in this prayer by responding "Amen," which means "So be it." It is an assent to all that has been accomplished in the Introductory Rites of the Mass: from humility, to praise, and finally, to petition, which we ask through the mediation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in union with the Holy Spirit.
Father Matthew Buettner is the pastor of St. Dorothy Church in Lincolnton. This is excerpted from "Understanding the Mystery of the Mass – Revisited," available for purchase online at www.tedeumfoundation.org. Proceeds will go toward the purchase of land for a future seminary in the Diocese of Charlotte.
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