Rose: Hymns – Angels We Have Heard on High

James Chadwick was born on April 24, 1813 in Drogheda, Ireland. His father was John Chadwick, of an old, Catholic Lancashire family. His mother was from Ireland, named Frances Dromgoole. James went to St. Cuthbert’s College of Ushaw in 1825 and was ordained in the December of 1836. He remained as a prefect at the college for three years, continued as a professor for five more years, and then was made vice president and professor of “dogmatic theology” in 1849.

Sadly, this position did not last long as his health failed him. So he joined a group of mission-work priests, though returned to the college seven years later. Though he also gained positions such as chaplain and bishop, he remained strongly connected to the college. In fact, at his death on May 14, 1882, Chadwick was buried right there in Ushaw. During these later years, in 1862, Chadwick wrote the lyrics to “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

However, the text of this well-known hymn is not wholly originally to Chadwick, though it is technically considered so. The text that Chadwick based his text was a contemporary French piece known as “Les Anges dans nos campagnes” by Francois-Auguste Gevaert. The words of Chadwick’s piece are not a direct French to English translation, but the general ideas and “plot” remain the same in addition to the tune, a traditional French noel. In fact, there is reason to believe that the French text and music were derived from an even older, Middle Ages Christmas hymn. There were originally eight stanzas in the “Les Anges,” but the song was shortened in publication and Chadwick retained only four.

Yet these is also Latin in this French to English text. The inclusion of two languages makes this hymn a macaronic. The chorus of In excelsis Deo is actually the title of an early hymn known as “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” the “Gloria,” the “Angels’ Hymn,” and the Greater Doxology. This hymn is first attested to by Bishop Telesphorus in 129 A.D. when he stated that the Church on the night of the Nativity should “solemnly sing the ‘Angels’ Hymn.'” The text is based on the Angels’ song in Luke 2. It was likely originally written in Greek. The text is assumed to have been translated to Latin in the mid-4th century.

Additionally, the lyrical hymn, known as a psalmi idiotici, was much longer than the chorus most know today and has been shortened and modified various times over the centuries, the two best likely being the hymn called the “Doxology” and the “Lesser Doxology.” Thus, part of this early Latin text would have been added to the old French text and still remains in the English to this day. 

While the song is clearly a retelling and versification of Luke 2, the hymn is also a beautiful look into the sort of joy and amazement that the shepherds must have felt. We can almost see the shepherds going around and telling everyone they met about the wonderful things they saw and heard. What do they sing? About the angels and their songs. Why do they give glory, others ask? Because the Savior has come, and they have seen Him! So to we do we continue to sing “Glory to God in the highest,” for peace has come to us.

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!

The first stanza begins with what the shepherds first saw (Luk. 2:8-14). Though we have not actually spoken about them in this hymn, we know that it is those men speaking in this stanza. And what wondrous things have they seen and glorious things have they heard that deems such a song? They have seen angels announcing the birth of the Savior, speaking the message of God. This song fills the earth as it reaches these initial visitors (Isa. 55:12). This is a sweet song in that it is pleasant to the listener. It is a joyous song because of the message they brought. And what is that message? Part of it is found in the refrain: Glory is to be given to God. But the rest? That peace and favor have been given to men from our glorious God through the birth of our Savior!

Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
which inspire your heav’nly song?

In their jubilee, the shepherds go out from the manger singing praises to God, as we do in the chorus. But who are the shepherds speaking to? Everyone who was nearby! I doubt they were discreet as they spread the news of what they had found and been told (Luk. 2:17-18). This stanza holds the questions posed by those looking (likely in shock) on the shepherds as they exclaim their joy. On this rather average night, even in light of the census, the listeners see little reason to celebrate, especially in such a wondrous way. What on earth could they be joyful about? So too, what reason do we have to be joyful?

Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the new-born King. 

Our answer is found with the shepherds. They respond to the pondering, “Come and see!” One can hear “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in this verse. Do not wonder, do not hesitate, but come and see what glorious things the Lord has done for us (Luk. 2:15-18)! The shepherds only speak of the angels in the first verse, but now they state their message and the reason for their joy clearly: The birth of the Christ (1 Pet. 3:15). The Lord’s anointed has come, the Messiah is here to save! How can they do anything else but praise the Lord? So they tell the listeners to come and not only see, but also to honor Him, the King and Christ. 

See within a manger laid
Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth!
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
sing with us our Savior’s birth.

This verse is a continuation of the previous. Clearly there was not enough room in one verse to speak on all the marvelous things they saw! Yet it almost seems as though the shepherds are leading the curious questions to the manger themselves. But what is this thing that they praise? For what reason do we have hope, joy, and peace? In a lowly manger, the Lord of all creation was laid. The Immanuel has come, our salvation is at hand, and God has come to mankind (Matt. 1:23). Even here, the shepherds ask for Mary and Joseph to join in, for this salvation is for them as well (Luk. 1:46-55, 2:1-20). Christ came to save men on all the earth, and this is why in the Angel’s song they say “peace to men on whom his favor rests.” This was the time of the Lord’s favor and salvation (Isa. 61:1-3, 2 Cor. 6:1-2). It is for this reason that we rejoice in His first coming during Advent. Thus, we continue in singing “Glory to God in the highest” because of this grace He has shown to us.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Rose


Works Referenced

“Angels We Have Heard on High.”

“Angels We Have Heard on High.”

“Angles We Have Heard on High.”

Brady, William. The Episcopal Succession in England, Scotland, and Ireland. 414-15. 

Clancy, Ronald. Best-loved Christmas Carols: The Stories Behind Twenty-five Yuletide Favorites. 66.

“Doxology.”

“Gloria in excelsis Deo.”

“Gloria in Excelsis Deo.”

“Hymn of the Angels.”

“James Chadwick.”

“James Chadwick (bishop).”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close