Since it is the Christmas season, there are some folks who will be singing Christmas carols with the words "gloria in excelsis Deo" in the lyrics, so I thought I would comment on this phrase today.
The most famous carol that uses the phrase "gloria in excelsis Deo" is "Angels We Have Heard On High," which is an adaptation by James Chadwick of a French carol, Les Anges dans Nos Campagnes. The refrain of the English carol is traditionally sung in Latin: Gloria in excelsis Deo!, which literally means "Glory in the high (places) to God."
The Latin phrase Gloria in excelsis Deo! plays a part in the liturgy of various Christian churches. You can read more about that at wikipedia, which offers some useful observations about the Greek versions of the phrase. There is also an extremely detailed article at the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia online.
What is interesting is that the Latin phrase itself, in this form, is not found in the text of the Latin Bible itself. Instead, the words are a combination of elements found in different passages.
In Luke 19, Jesus is making his entrance into Jerusalem, riding on a colt. His followers begin to sing his praise with these words: benedictus qui venit rex in nomine Domini pax in caelo et gloria in excelsis, "blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven and glory in the high places." This is the only place in the Latin Bible where the phrase gloria in excelsis is found. The parallelism here between caelo and in excelsis helps make the meaning of "in the high places" more clear, as a parallel way to describe God's above in the heights of heaven.
In an earlier chapter, Luke 2, angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds with these words: Gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis, "Glory in the highest places to God and on earth peace among men of good will." This verse uses the phrase in altissimis, "in the highest places," rather than in excelsis. In addition, this verse pairs the highest places of heaven with pax in terra, rather than pax in caelo as we saw in the other passage.
Hence the phrase Gloria in excelsis Deo is built both on the nativity passage (Gloria in altissimis Deo), but with an important element (in excelsis) from Jesus's entrance into Jerusalem. Much of the beauty of the liturgy consists precisely in the way that it is not simply a list of direct quotations from the Bible, but rather a language of its own, made up of motifs and phrases from the Biblical text which then take on a life of their own in the living reptition of the liturgy.
I wonder, though, what people really think (if they think about it) when they hear the English words, "Glory to God in the highest," which is the usual English rendering of Gloria in excelsis Deo (a translation, I should note, which seems to be colored by the use of altissimis rather than simply excelsis). What do people understand by the phrase "in the highest" when they hear these words? In English, I would guess that this suggests not so much the very high places, the celestial realm, etc., but rather a metaphorical sense of "in first place," "to the highest degree."
Compare the much less ambiguous translation in the Book of Common Prayer, which reads: "Glory be to God on high." I think this is actually a much better translation of Gloria in excelsis Deo, as opposed to the modern English version used in Roman Catholic Mass today, "Glory to God in the Highest."
Now, back to the subject of Christmas carols, where we started. For a Christmas carol based on this English version of gloria in excelsis Deo as found in the Book of Common Prayer, you can turn to Glory be to God on High, composed by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, and co-founder of the Methodist church. Happy holidays!
(Gloria greeting card)