Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among people of good will. —Luke 2:14
If you are Catholic, or once were Catholic, or even if you listen to any sacred choral music at all, you know that generically a Gloria—any Gloria—is the second obligatory component of any sung mass in a Roman Catholic Church during Ordinary time. In a full Mass the Gloria comes after the opening Kyrie and before the Credo, and you also know that all the components of a Mass are named after the first word, in Latin, the choir sings in that piece: Kyrie (Lord), Credo (I believe) Sanctus (Holy), Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), and Gloria (Glory, of course), because this Gloria prayer or song was inspired by the angel’s song above those shepherd’s fields outside Bethlehem so long ago: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth piece among people of good will.”
The Christian Church has been singing this very prayer with almost these identical words for almost 2,000 years; this song in its present form goes almost all the way back to Jesus’ death and resurrection itself.
Because the Gloria prayer or song is inspired by the angel’s song at that very first Christmas, we Protestants are used to hearing Vivaldi’s or Rutter’s Gloria’s during Advent, but ironically, in a Roman Catholic Mass, you’d never hear the Gloria sung during Advent or Lent, because those are the penitential seasons, and the Gloria is much too joyful and happy to be sung during a time of penitence. So don’t tell your Catholic or Episcopalian friends that we are doing this on the second Sunday of Advent, OK? They would scoff!
I am very grateful for my childhood and youth among the pious Dutch Reformed folk of western Michigan, but to be honest about it, church music was not our best thing. I was raised on a steady diet of nineteenth-century Evangelical hymns about the blood of the lamb, like Rock of Ages and The Old Rugged Cross, which are great but a little Johnny One-Note. I don’t remember ever hearing Handel or Mozart in the church I grew up in; surely that can’t be an entirely accurate memory but there wasn’t much of it, certainly nothing in Latin; we only spoke one language at church, and it was American.
So imagine my delight when during seminary as a field education placement I stumbled into this huge Presbyterian Church near Philadelphia with a killer music program. Our Minister of Music back then is still one of my favorite people in the world; he must be 90 years old today. His name was G. Stanley Powell, and you didn’t have to ask him where he was from because as soon as he opened his mouth, you could tell he was from Peachtree Road in Atlanta, Georgia.
Stanley was irrepressible, a 60-year-old ball of energy. Well, sort of. Most days he’d be at the office at 6 a.m. and brag to us young associates that he’d stayed up till 2 a.m. the night before studying scores and only needed four hours of sleep a night, but then he would fall asleep during staff meeting and stay that way till the rest of us left the room. Our organist swears that Stanley once fell asleep on him in the middle of a conversation, which happens now and then, of course, but in this case, Stanley was doing the talking; he fell asleep in the middle of his own sentence.
During divine worship at the Abington Presbyterian Church Stanley always sat right behind the pulpit, where the congregation couldn’t quite see him, but the choir and the liturgists could watch him sitting there during the sermon with an open score in his lap and a pencil in his right hand conducting silently to himself. Fortunately, the preacher couldn’t see this.
Stanley was mostly irrepressible, and also fearless. He was like Lisa Bond; no music was too big or too much or too hard. Stanley was an early adopter of the music of John Rutter. John Rutter was born in 1945, which means that he celebrated his 70th birthday in September, and he’s been publishing music since 1963 when he was an 18-year-old student at Clare College Cambridge; you probably know Dr. Rutter’s first publication: Shepherd’s Pipe Carol: 1963.
So Dr. Rutter has been at his music for a long time, but he labored in obscurity in the US and the UK for a long until he premiered his glorious Gloria in Nebraska in 1974. That got everybody’s attention.
So my friend Stanley must have stumbled upon Dr. Rutter’s Gloria in the late 70’s and brought it to the Abington Presbyterian Church during Advent of 1983.
Stanley invited me to participate in the rehearsal for full choir and orchestra on Saturday the day before we were going to do the Gloria at Sunday worship; I must have been reading scripture or something. I’d never heard the Gloria before and seldom anything like it in church, so I was sitting there minding my own business waiting to practice my reading, and I think I physically jumped back when Stanley raised his baton, and that opening tympani roll and brass fanfare burst the silence of that sacred sanctuary. It was so big; it was so bright; it was so—forgive me—glorious.
After the rehearsal, I came up to my friend Stanley and I said, “Stanley, is this legal? Can you do this in church? Won’t the liturgical police arrest you or something?” In 1983, Alan Greenspan hadn’t yet come up with the phrase “Irrational Exuberance,” but in retrospect that’s what I was thinking: the exuberance of John Rutter’s Gloria is almost irrational.
You’ll notice in a moment that Dr. Rutter gave his Gloria a symphonic architecture; like many symphonies, the Gloria has three movements: fast, slow, fast; or, as Dr. Rutter himself puts it: exultant, contemplative, and jubilant. The Gloria starts so big and so bright and so loud you wonder where it could possibly go after the first few measures, but then it does; it just keeps going. Irrational exuberance.
But that’s just the point of this Gloria, isn’t it? That angel song above those shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem so long ago was anything but rational, wasn’t it? “Glory to God in the highest,” those angels sing to those shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people of good will.” I want you to notice that the word ‘glory’ appears twice in our Gospel Lesson this morning, once as a noun, and a second time as a verb. To put it a different way, in Luke’s Christmas story, ‘glory’ is something God has, and also something God gets, something we human beings give to God, even though God already has it.
‘Glory’ is a noun; ‘glory’ is something God has; ‘glory’ is an attribute or a characteristic of God. “The glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were ‘terrified,’ as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, or, as Linus reads it in that old Peanuts Christmas Show: “they were sore afraid.”
The glory of the Lord shone round about them. You see, here’s the thing: God is way beyond our grasp or conceiving; God is invisible, unreachable, unspeakable, unthinkable, uncontainable. We cannot speak God, we cannot think God, we cannot imagine God, but sometimes God leaves evidence of God’s almost palpable presence, and when we think we see evidence of God’s activity in our common world, we speak of God’s glory.
Glory is, as it were, God’s footprint in the dewy grass of a spring morning. When we see the glory of a perfect scarlet Japanese maple in November, or the burnt glory of a flaming sunrise over Lake Michigan, or hear the glory in Alyssa’s voice or in Emily’s voice or in Amanda’s voice, we are sure that God is near.
Glory is God’s loveliness, God’s majesty, God’s awesomeness, come close to us as unmerited grace. One theologian said ‘glory’ is “a splendor so intense it can barely be thought or imagined.”
So ‘glory’ is a noun; it is something God has. But ‘glory’ is also a verb and is something God gets; and God gets it from us. When we think we see evidence of God’s grace and beauty in our common world, we want to turn glory into a verb and glorify God; we want to praise God, we want to thank God for being God, and so we sing, at Christmas, with those angels, “Gloria in excelsis deo,” “Glorify God in the highest, and on earth, peace.”
And when you hear me define ‘glory’ as God’s unspeakable splendor, now you know why I am talking about the ‘irrational exuberance’ of John Rutter’s music and of the angel’s song in the Gospel of Luke, because what the angel wanted to say to those shepherds, and what Luke wants to say to us, and what John Rutter is trying to communicate in his music, is that God’s unspeakable splendor appeared to us most definitively in that Bethlehem baby.
In what universe does that qualify as unspeakable splendor? His mother was an unwed teenager; his adopted father was a Palestinian peasant; he was born in a cattle shed, wrapped in rags and laid on hay in a feeding trough; his first worshipful congregation were rustics from the pasture, the scorned outcasts of first-century Palestinian society. There is nothing rational about the exuberance of Gloria in excelsis deo.
And yet that’s what Luke’s Christmas story means to say: that when you want to know what God looks like in all God’s inexpressible splendor, look at that Bethlehem baby. The humility of his entrance into this unwelcoming world, the gentleness of it, the inconspicuousness of it—all this is quite to the point. The story of his Nativity is a foreshadowing, a hint, a guess, an intimation, of the beautiful life that will follow.
I think it’s a message we all need to hear just now. “Darkness shall cover the earth,” promised the prophet Isaiah 2,500 years ago, and Dan Forrest too more recently with his music, “Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” Well, I guess so, right? It really feels very dark in the world just now.
For me, the most depressing thing about Colorado Springs and San Bernardino is that in both places, religion was the source and inspiration for all that malice. Robert Dear and Syed Farook both used God as an excuse for their lethal hatreds. How could they both have gotten God so wrong?
But that’s not the end of the story. “The Lord will be your everlasting light,” promises Isaiah the prophet. “The glory of the Lord will shine around you,” promises Luke the Evangelist.
“I love Christmas,” says John Rutter. “It’s the child in me, I guess. Maybe I’ve never grown up. So many happy memories of my childhood Christmases, celebrating Christmas at home with my family, and also singing Christmas music with my wonderful London school choir.
“With music,” says Dr. Rutter, “your Christmas can always be perfect. In that way, it’s different from real-life Christmas. Real-life Christmas is never perfect.” Maybe you hoped for a white Christmas, but there’s nothing but a cold rain all day. Or maybe the turkey is overcooked and dried out. Or your Grandfather and your Uncle Sylvester get into a daylong argument about politics and almost come to blows. Or you’re eight years old and your grandmother gets you socks for Christmas. Socks! For Christmas!
“Real-life Christmas is never perfect. But the music of Christmas is always perfect.”
Adapted from Mayra Rivera, “Glory: The First Passion of Theology?”, in Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation, eds. Catherine Keller & Laurel Schneider (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 177.
Adapted from John Rutter, quoted by the websites singers.com (singers.com/composers/John-Rutter/), and classicfm.com (classicfm.com/composers/rutter/guides/john-rutter-story/).