Hymn of the Week: Angels We Have Heard On High
Posted by Hal in Hymns

This week before Christmas, we thought it would be fun to have a hymn that was really triumphant and joyful.   What is more joyful than the angels who announced the arrival of the long-promised Messiah?

Adoration of the Shepherds, Fray Juan Bautista Maino, 1612

Angels We Have Heard On High
Words: Traditional, trans. from French by James Chadwick, 1862
Music: Traditional French carol

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.


Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?


Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.


See Him in a manger laid,
Whom the choirs of angels praise;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our hearts in love we raise.


There is some interesting discussion about where and when this carol was written, but everyone agrees it was translated from French to English by James Chadwick in the early 1860’s.  The imagined speaker in the song is one of the shepherds, describing the sound of the angels singing in the heavens overhead, and the sound echoing from the mountains around them.

It’s interesting to realize that this is exactly what you would expect from a real, audible, earth-shaking sound — not a dream or an imagination, but the truth.  A huge choir of angels sang with a mighty voice that literally shook the air and the hillsides!

They probably didn’t sing in Latin, though.  Gloria in excelsis Deo is a Latin phrase which means, “Glory to God in the highest!”, as recorded in Luke 2:13-14.  It is said that the Latin phrase has been used by believers as a call to worship since the 2nd Century!  You can often see it as an inscription on windows, stone, and woodwork in churches, especially older Catholic churches where Latin was part of the worship service well into the 20th Century. 

Whatever language men or angels use, though, certainly we can borrow an old Christian tradition and sing Glory to God in the Highest in a beautiful old language!