The mysteries of Christmas are many. Among them is the mystery of the music heard that night. The angels shouted the great declaration, “Glory to God in the highest,” and creation took it up as a song. Why this music? Is it merely window dressing, or does it disclose a mystery to us? Is the declaration only for us, or do the angels also need it?
As always with the things of God, there are realities far deeper than most of us imagine. Tonight’s Christmas feast weaves together, among many other mysteries, those of music and descent, and it points up to music and ascent. You see, over my head I hear music in the air; there must be a God somewhere.
Let’s explore this key point: The Lord descends (to one song) so that we might ascend (to a new song) to the highest heavens.
I. Divine Descent – The text says, Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:8-12).
We look first to Jesus’ divine descent. Note that Jesus, who is called Savior, Anointed One, and Lord, is said to be found wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, a trough from which animals are fed.
What sort of king and Lord is this? It is almost a divine comedy. Imagine the shepherds quaking in fear at the presence of an awesome angel, who then says that they will find the Christ lying in a feed box inside a nearby stable.
Indeed, there is a remarkable divine condescension here! The Lord did not merely descend from Heaven to earth but to one of the lowest places on the earth: a smelly cave among animals. His bed a feeding trough not a cozy cradle. Yet how fitting, that He who is the Bread of Life would be born in Bethlehem (which means “House of Bread”) and be found lying in a manger.
Why this descent? The Lord descends today to one song in order that we may ascend with Him one day to a new place and sing a new song. To what song does He descend and to what song will we ascend? Let’s read on.
II. Delighted Declarations – The text says, And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The angels rejoiced in God’s plan and longed for its day! One of the Church Fathers, Eusebius, spoke of discouragement among the lower angels at the advance of evil in the world that had been entrusted to their care. Even the giving of the law and the sending of prophets had done little to stem its tide. Now, God himself would intervene!
Thus, as Christ descends at the Annunciation and is manifest today at Christmas, the Church Father Origen has some of the higher angels say,
“If he has put on mortal flesh, how can we remain!? Come, Angels, let us descend from heaven!” That is why [Scripture says] there was a multitude of the heavenly Hosts praising and glorifying God when Christ was born. Everything is filled with angels! (Hom in Ex. 1:7)
As the Lord is made manifest to the world on this day, the highest angels who descended with Christ at the Annunciation now send word through and to the lower ranks of angels, and a great heavenly throng makes the declaration, Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace!
Another Church Father, Pseudo-Dionysius, says of this Gloria,
The highest order composed of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, and which is closest of all, by reason of its dignity, to the secret sanctuary of God [instructs] the second order, composed of Dominations, Virtues and Powers. This order in turn reveals the mysteries to the lower tier of angels the Principalities, Archangels and Angels who are set in charge of the human hierarchies (Hier Ceol. 9,2).
This great sung hymn is not just for the human family. According to the Fathers of the Church it is also a signal to the lower ranking angels from the higher-ranking angels: Lift up your heads, Ye ancient Gates, that the King of Glory may come in! Of this mystery, St. Peter would later say, … The things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you … are things into which angels longed to look (1 Peter 1:12).
An ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St. James says of this moment,
Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the shadows clear away.
Why all this music at the divine descent? Because the music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and are meant to lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler, higher song.
III. Dignity of our Destiny – The Psalm for tonight says, Sing to the LORD a new song, sing to the LORD, all you lands. Sing to the LORD; bless his name (Ps 96:1-2).
So again, this music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and meant to lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler, higher song—a song sung in the highest heavens! Without this descent and this first song, the second song and our ascent would be impossible. Christ descends to the song of the lower heavens so that we, by his saving grace, may ascend to the place and song of the higher heavens.
What is this new song and where is this place? Isaiah heard the music and saw the place:
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:1-3).
Here is our new song, a higher song, one sung only in the highest heavens before the throne of God, one sung only by the redeemed: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts! At every Mass, our High Priest, Jesus, speaking through His ministerial priest, says, “Lift up your hearts.” The congregation replies, “We lift them up to the Lord.” In other words, we are told to come higher, to come into the Holy of Holies in Heaven, to come before the throne and sing the hymn of the highest in Heaven.
Our ascent to this highest place is made possible only by the Lord’s descent to the lowest places on earth: the manger, the cross, and Sheol. In the early Church, only the baptized were permitted to sing the Sanctus at Mass. The unbaptized were not allowed to attend. The catechumens, though permitted to sing the hymn announced to the lower realms (The Gloria), were dismissed prior to the singing of the Sanctus, the song of the highest heavens. Only when we are caught up higher by grace can we hear and join the Sanctus. One day it will be fully our song when God says to us, “Come up higher.” By Him who descended, we will then ascend and sing a new song to the Lord!
Over my head I hear music in the air; there must be a God somewhere. The Lord descends to one song that we might ascend to a new song in a new place, in the highest heavens. May He who descends to the manger today cause you to ascend to the highest heavens to sing that new song.