Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gloria in excelsis Deo: A model for balance in our singing

When two worlds collide . . .

I regularly attend a collegiate chapel which clearly is not catering to my taste. It is, after all, a worship service that students are required to attend, with music planned by and led by students, for students. I get that. In fact, I celebrate that. But when I assert that it is not catering to my taste, I am not referring to the musical style.

What I care about is the content of the typical chapel music set. Again I will say it (I don’t know where I got this phrase, but I use it all the time) “there is no praise without proclamation.” So when students are only offered words to sing that are general or vague praise phrases--however artfully put together, or not--we are not actually, you know, praising God.

Of deeper trouble to me is that many songs do not even get as far as a string of praise phrases. Because they are stuck in expositing the emotions that we have, or wish to have, in this time and place. Presumably evoked by and directed to God; but I use the word presumably intentionally.

That’s one world. The other is writing a program note for a campus performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria. And while writing about the hymn, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” I was struck with how this ancient model might serve as a pattern for contemporary student chapel worship.

By the third century A.D., the hymn, “Gloria in excelsis” was an established part of worship in the Greek-speaking eastern churches. In the fourth century it was translated into Latin, and in this form became a permanent feature in the liturgies of western Christianity. The anonymous hymn begins with the angels’ words to the Judean shepherds:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men.”
To this simple, bold declaration, the unknown author added a rich doxological  theology in direct, exalted poetry. The resultant  hymn is still said or sung regularly in many worship traditions.

So, it has some legs. And maybe, as C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton might argue, we owe our ancestors the respect of learning from it.
The hymn begins where much contemporary praise singing gets to, and where most of it ends. With ecstatic expressions directed to God: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men. (Thus far, the familiar Luke 2 angels) We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you; we give you thanks for your great glory. There is nothing wordy, or academic, or stodgy about this. In effect, this is what much new worship music expresses. But note that neither we nor listeners nor angels (1 Peter 1:12)necessarily know what all this emotional fuss is about. Yet.

The hymn continues, and it is in the body of Gloria that actual praise is expressed. This is a hymn to Jesus, who is: Lord God, heavenly King; Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten Son; Lord God; Lamb of God, Son of the Father who takes away the sins of the world. (Have mercy and hear our prayer!) Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, the only Holy One, the Most High, with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Gloria is a great model for our sung worship. It is emotionally charged; it is biblical; it uses simple, direct, powerful language. It shows us Jesus as we are meant to know him, whom we approach with humble confidence. It wouldn’t hurt to actually sing this hymn . . . but I am arguing here for Gloria as a model “worship song set,” much in the way we can both say the Lord’s Prayer and use it as a  model for our praying.

Our worship will be enriched, we will actually be praising God, we will come to know Jesus more clearly, we will have ample emotional expression, and (least important of all) no matter the musical style, my taste (my thirst) will be satisfied.

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