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Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Rev. John M. Edgerton
Dec 21 2014


What does the birth of Jesus Christ mean? What does it mean that almighty God came to earth, not with a voice booming from the whirlwind, but an infant’s cry? The gospel of Luke dwells for a long time telling the story of the birth of God in Jesus Christ. It is a story about a host of angels from the courts of highest heaven, and lowly shepherds living outdoors. A story about young women yet to be married, and an aging married couple who had long since given up hope for having children. This much is well known, but the story of the birth of Jesus is also filled with music. It is full of singing. Singing is an expression of joy too profound for the sterility of speech to capture and must necessarily overflow into music. Music that adds tone and rhythm and interval and harmony to transform the intent to praise into the practice of praise.

In Luke’s gospel, the first two chapters contain four songs, four hymns, four canticles of joy. A woman, who was said to be unable to bear children, delivers a healthy baby, one who is to pave the way for Jesus. The song the child’s parents sing is one of joy that God is ever faithful—the name of the song is Benedictus. An old man, who had been faithful to God his whole life, holds the infant Jesus, and his song is one of joy that with his own curled fingers he holds a hope greater than he had imagined—it is called the Nunc Dimittis. A young woman is told that her strong hips would bear the weight of the world’s salvation, and her song is one of defiant joy that God would choose her for an honor greater than any worldly wealth—that song is called Magnificat. Each of these songs are expressions of joy because the savior’s coming into the world swept people up into the story of God. Their lives were forever changed, forever altered at their essence by their encounter with God in Jesus Christ. For them, their joy is so deep, they must sing to give it full expression.

If you recall, I said that there are four songs of joy sung over the birth of Jesus. Three are sung by human beings; the fourth is sung by the angels. Their song at the birth of Jesus is one of delirious joy, overflowing joy that embraces the whole world in good will. The angel song we even still sing today.Perhaps, you know this song’s name—Gloria in Excelsis Deo. The host of heaven sings for joy, but why? Why should heaven’s joy overflow into music? What does God have to be joyful about? The coming of Jesus into the world is good news for the people of earth. It means salvation to be sure, but what is in it for God? The coming of the savior has a cost; it means sacrifice on God’s part. To be born in human flesh means God will suffer weakness and loss and hunger and deprivation and death. What is there to be joyful about in that?

Yet, here from the very messengers and mouthpieces of heaven, we learn that God’s heart overflows with joy. It is incomparable bliss for God to be born in Jesus Christ. God’s personal joy is so great that all the hosts of heaven sing. But why? But what is this joy? What is its source and meaning?

To understand God’s joy, you have to understand the character of God, you have to understand who God is. Not God as we might imagine Her, but the God revealed in holy scripture. God is the creator of all that exists; the creator of a world that is broad and good, filled with delight and abundance. God placed humankind in the world, making them in his own image. God invited humanity to be with God, to stay beside God, and be God’s people. But, humankind would not do that. From the Garden of Eden to Cain in the wheat fields to Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery to the worship of wealth, generation after generation of humanity would not love God. That is what God wants, you see. That is all that God wants and ever wanted. God wants to be our God, and God wants us to be Her people.

Humanity would not love God and chased after other things: mistaking the pleasures of life for the meaning of life. Abundance for some became scarcity for most, and God’s heart broke a little. Humanity did not love God but worshipped other things, mistaking objects of human creation for the divine creator. Devotion to the God, who offers humanity the chance to grow, became obsession with idols that demanded nothing precisely because they have the power to give nothing. Seeing that we did not love Her, God’s heart broke a little.

God wanted so much to be with us. God wanted so much to be our God-- so much that God created us, was faithful to us, and generation to generation, God forgave our every failing. God stayed faithful, and humanity stayed faithless. God’s heart was broken because God was alone.

We would not come to God, so God came to us. We would not change our hearts to love God for who God is, so God was born exactly like us, in order to be with us.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, finally, humankind was able to love God just as God is. We loved God unconditionally because God had ten perfect toes to count over and over. We loved God because of how God’s hair smelled in the afternoon. We loved God because of the rise and fall of God’s chest breathing in sleep. We loved God because the weakness of God’s neck called out for tender hands to form a cradle beneath God’s head. We loved God, deeply, completely, and fiercely. Finally, God was who God had always dreamed of being. God was with us.

There are four songs that accompany the birth of Jesus. Three of these songs are expressions of human joy because the savior’s coming into the world swept people up into the story of God. Their lives were changed forever, altered at their essence by their encounter with God in Jesus Christ. But, the fourth song is sung by the hosts of heaven because the savior’s coming into the world swept God up into the story of humanity. God was forever changed, altered at the essence and in such a way that all the rest of time and creation finally was complete in light of God’s encounter with humanity.

Almighty God was born on Christmas day as a tiny infant. God was no longer almighty and untouchable in highest heaven but weak and vulnerable in a lowly manger, yet beloved for all that by humankind at last. For God and all Her angels, it was glorious to the highest heaven, joyous beyond the capacity of speech’s sterility. A song of delirious joy burst from Heaven, calling out to embrace the whole world in good will, overflowing into canticles of praise by ranks of angelic host. God’s voice joined in the song too. God’s own small voice joined the song of God’s homecoming in a voice that sounded just like an infant’s cry.