On a chilly winter’s evening in the hills of medieval France, the calls of shepherds can be heard throughout; “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” from hill to hill. The now familiar chorus translated from Latin meaning, “Glory to God in the Highest,” sounds throughout the countryside as the shepherds spread their Christmas joy to one another. This is the origin of that famous chorus that became part of the hymn “Angels We Have Heard on High,” or so the legend goes. Originally in French, the song’s author is anonymous. First published in 1855, “Les anges dans nos campagnes,” was sung to a French tune. It was then translated to English in 1862 by James Chadwick, with the most recognizable version arranged by Edward Barnes around 1937. To me, this song brings back many nostalgic memories of Christmas from my childhood and is a personal favorite of mine.
With its lyrics based on the story of the shepherds from Luke 2: 8-20, the song describes the joyous occasion when the angels appeared before the shepherds. Consisting of three stanzas, there is a sort of call and response taking place. Beginning with the first verse, the assumed perspective is that of the shepherds as they describe the wondrous sight of angels coming and singing throughout the hills. The angels’ song is sweet; their voices echoing off the mountains.
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Immediately as the verse ends, the chorus kicks in:
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Being easily one of the most recognizable choruses in Christmas carolling, the chorus is perfect for group singing. Being simple with most of the melody from its long sustaining “o” in “Gloria”, allowing people of all languages to join in. (some effort needed to pronounce the “excelsis Deo” however)
Moving on to the second stanza, the perspective shifts to that of people who heard the shepherd’s joy, asking them why they were so happy. As can be inferred from the lyrics, the shepherds are singing joyously over and over with glad tidings to all.
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be?
Which inspire your heavenly songs?
After the second chorus, we come to the final stanza of the song. Back in the perspective of the shepherds, they reply with the good news they’ve heard. Beautifully summarized, they tell of where to go, who they are there to see, who told them the news, and how they should react. Go to Bethlehem, see Christ the Lord the newborn King, which the angels sang of, and adore in reverence.
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
With the final chorus, the song ends majestically with all glory to God. Reaching back down to the root note of the key, the song resolves with a satisfying homely conclusion. Indeed all Glory to God in the Highest!
To me, what impacts me most through this song is the fact that the first members of the public to hear of Christ’s birth are shepherds. During the time of Jesus, shepherds were of very low social status, on the same level as tax collectors and dung sweepers. This consistency of God bringing people of humble background to do His work just helps to reinforce how He loves all of us. The fact that God chose simple shepherds instead of great men or priests is an encouragement. God sent His Son not just to save high-class people, He sent Jesus to save everyone including the lowly.
We are all equal in God’s eyes.
We all can take part in the joy that is Christ Jesus.
And finally, we can all share the good news of Jesus.
If shepherds can do it, so can we!
Blessed Christmas Everyone!