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Christmas Hymn: Angels We Have Heard on High

Editor's Note: Modern hymn writer Keith Getty has written a series of essays, each focusing on a Christmas hymn or carol. This is the eighth of an 11-part series in Baptist Press.


NASHVILLE, Tenn. – This is such a beautiful carol. It's one of the most joyful and well-written choruses ever composed. The English version was written in 1862 by James Chadwick, a Roman Catholic bishop in the northeast of England, and is most often sung to the tune of a traditional French carol 'Gloria.'


The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (Thomas Cole). Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

The lyrics are based on an original French song 'Les Anges dans nos campagnes' (literally 'the angels in our countryside'). It depicts the story of the nativity as told in Luke 2, where a whole company of angelic hosts appear to a small group of unassuming shepherds in the countryside.


Shepherds, why this jubilee?

Why your joyous strains prolong?

What the gladsome tidings be?

Which inspire your heavenly songs?


As the angels gather in the night sky, they proclaim: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:14).


And this is where the song's memorable refrain comes from – the line 'Glory to God in the Highest heaven,' translated into Latin becomes:


Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Gloria in excelsis Deo!


And it's sung with that wonderfully prolonged 'o' of Gloria which is such a delight to sing and captures something of the joy and reverence of heaven.


My favorite verse is the fourth one:


Come to Bethlehem to see

him whose birth the angels sing

Come adore on bended knee

Christ the Lord the new-born King


What must it have been like for the shepherds to witness a sky full of worshiping angels 2,000 years ago? It must have been incredible. With this carol we are invited to join in with their worship and to add volume to the heavenly sound as we declare the birth of our King.


A great Christian life, or a great sermon, or a great song have a way of showing Christ to be so vast and glorious that our response can only be to humble ourselves, to bow down on bended knee and to acknowledge and be in awe of the greatness of our God. I think this carol enables us to do that really well.


About Keith & Kristyn Getty


Keith and Kristyn Getty are modern hymn writers whose compositions are sung the world over. For more information on Getty Music and the Sing! initiative, visit www.gettymusic.com.


Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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