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Gloria in Excelsis Deo |
Songs that fan a spark into a fire

Gloria in Excelsis Deo is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 80, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The first Christian music was drawn from the Bible; then came the first hymns, one of the earliest sung by a martyr as he walked into the flames

Gloria in Excelsis Deo - Songs that fan a spark into a fire

Gloria in Excelsis Deo - Songs that fan a spark into a fire
The three Old Testament youths, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, raise their hands in song amid the flames of the fiery furnace (Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome).

The oldest Christian hymn sounded forth in the first century, when angel voices sang “Glory to God in the highest, and upon Earth peace, goodwill to men” (Gloria in Excelsis Deo) to announce the birth of Jesus. These ancient words have been sung, especially at Christmastime, for two millennia.

Among the earliest hymns were the psalms, found in the Old Testament. They were central to Jewish worship, and the tradition of singing in the synagogue was one that early Christians appropriated. Singing unites people in praise and worship, and in dark times, a song to God can lift the spirits. It was almost certainly the singing of hymns that prisoners in the jail cells of Philippi overheard from their fellow captives Paul and Silas on that momentous night, recorded in Acts 16.

When he was Roman governor of Bithynia early in the second century, Pliny reported to the emperor Trajan that Christians sang together “. . . in honor of Christ as if to God.” Another second-century writer, Clement of Alexandria, remarks how often Christians sang at mealtimes (saying “grace,” perhaps). And in his early fourth-century history, Eusebius comments: “How many psalms and hymns . . . celebrate Christ, the Word of God!”

The most universal canticles–songs derived directly from the words of Old and New Testament–were drawn from Luke’s Gospel, and three of them especially, are still sung today in Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox worship (see earlier volume, The Veil Is Torn, chapter 3).

The Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”) is a song from the words of the Virgin Mary after learning that she has been chosen to bear the Savior of the world. The words of the Benedictus (“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel/For he hath visited and redeemed his people”) were proclaimed by Zacharias on the eighth day after the birth of his son, John the Baptist. The Nunc Dimittis was spoken by the old prophet Simeon as he beheld the child Jesus when Mary and Joseph brought him to the Temple: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”1

These and other canticles have three common features: First, they use actual words of Scripture. Second, they are given a regular, fixed place in worship. Third, and most important, they enable the singer to participate in a universal act of worship; the best canticles transcend all particularities of geography, culture or race.

The Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts”) comes from Isaiah 6:3; St. Clement of Rome, who died in about a.d. 104, testified that the Sanctus was regularly sung at Christian gatherings. In the West during the Middle Ages, the tradition of ringing church bells during the Sanctus began.

The Benedicite (“Bless the Lord all you works,” from the song of the three young men tossed into the fiery furnace) calls upon every created thing–sun and moon, wind and fire, rain and dew, lightning and cloud, river and sea, the whole round Earth and all its inhabitants–to bless the name of the Lord, “to sing his praise and exalt him forever.”

The Venite (“O come, let us sing unto the Lord” Psalm 95), by contrast, is a song of triumph; it rejoices in “the strength of our salvation.” It renders God personal, by referring to the sovereign Creator as “our” God, and by confirming that “we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.”

In addition to sung canticles, early Christian congregations joined in brief affirmations or responses, spoken or sung at particular times during worship, such as the Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost”), familiar to Catholics and Protestants alike, and later the Greek Kyrie Eleison: “Lord, have mercy.”2

While canticles derive directly from Scripture, hymns allow room for creativity and artistic imagination, elaborating upon Scripture with poetry and music.

Clement of Alexandria’s “Fisher of men, whom thou to life does bring,” one of the earliest complete and explicitly Christian hymns, is believed to have been written about 170. Clement also preserved another early hymn, “Bridle of colts untamed.”

Still in use is “O Gladsome Light” (Phos Hilaron) usually attributed to St. Athenogenes, martyred about 305 under the emperor Diocletian. According to tradition, Athenogenes sang the second stanza of this hymn as he entered the flames that consumed him. In 1899, Robert Bridges, poet laureate of England, undertook a translation from the Greek of that second stanza:

Now, ere day fadeth quite,

We see the evening light,

Our wonted hymn outpouring,

Father of might unknown,

Thee, his incarnate Son,

And Holy Ghost adoring.

In the 1920s, a fragment of papyrus was found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt; on one side it had jottings of Egyptian corn accounts, on the other, five lines, complete with musical notation, of a Christian hymn predating the Council of Nicea in 325. These ancient words affirm that, at all times, the Christian message is “good news”:

Might and worship and majesty belong always to God,

The giver alone of all that is good.

By the end of the fourth century, hymn writing was flourishing, laying down for future generations a treasure trove of Christian insight and inspiration. Hymns created in the intervening seventeen centuries continue to fulfill St. Paul’s charge that Christians should “admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).

St. Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Russian monk, understood the powerful appeal of church hymns, ancient and modern: They “make the spark of grace that is hidden within us burn bright and with greater warmth . . . Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are introduced to fan the spark and transform it to flame.”

This is the end of the Gloria in Excelsis Deo category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 80, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Gloria in Excelsis Deo from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at