Gloria in Excelsis Deo -- A Sermon for Christmas Eve
Shepherds are tending their sheep in the hills near Bethlehem, when to their surprise a choir of angels gathers in the heavens and begins singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo. What a treat that must have been! After all angelic visits don’t happen every day, and it can get a bit boring sitting out there in the fields in the cold of night.
In the spirit of angelic visits, J.B. Phillips tells a wonderful story about the day when a senior angel takes a new recruit on a tour of the cosmos. This rookie angel is quite impressed by the grandeur of the cosmos – who wouldn’t -- but then, as they walk through the multitude of galaxies and stars, the older angel points out a small insignificant star and the planet that orbits around it. To the young angel, this "small rather insignificant sphere turning on its axis . . . looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball.” Why would this senior angel point out this plant? It seemed so insignificant and unimpressive in light of what she had just seen in her tour of the cosmos. In spite of his first impressions, the guide leaned over and said, look closely because this is the "visited planet."
"You mean, visited by . . ."
Yes, the senior angel replies, it has been "visited by our young Prince of Glory."
Now this news made no sense to the young angel. Why would the Prince of Glory stoop to visit this little planet?
The senior angel replies: it's not for us to know the reason, but remember, God isn’t impressed by size or numbers.
"Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that he stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?" Yes, said the senior angel, but God would prefer that you not call them "creeping, crawling creatures."
The increasingly skeptical rookie angel, couldn’t see the wisdom of this, and so the mentor takes the recruit back on a little tour of the past so that the younger angel could witness the glorious event described for us by Luke. As they watched this scene from above, they saw a tiny, but intensely bright, light shine in the midst of the darkness, and then they watched as the light was extinguished. The younger angel turned to the older one and asked, why would these creatures do such a stupid thing as to kill the prince of glory? But, then to his amazement, a bright blazing, radiant point of light emerged on the planet. That, said the senior angel is the resurrection of the prince of glory. What a glorious sight it was to behold, but the story isn’t over yet.
Watch said the older to the younger.
As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died; but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow over many areas.
"You see what is happening?" asked the senior angel. "The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth."
"Yes, yes" said the little angel impatiently, "but how does it end? Will the little lights join up with each other? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?"
His senior shook his head. "We simply do not know," he replied. "It is in the Father's hands. Sometimes it is agony to watch and sometimes it is joy unspeakable. The end is not yet, But now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it. He is working out His Plan upon it."
"Yes, I see, though I don't understand. I shall never forget that this is the visited planet." [J.B. Phillips, "The Angel's Point of View," in Behold that Star: A Christmas Anthology, edited by the Bruderhof, (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing Company, 1996), 2-9.]
The angels sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo that night because the Prince of Glory has visited our planet. In visiting our planet in the person of the babe of Bethlehem, God brought into the open the promise of peace and joy for all of creation. It is as Isaiah declared:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;authority rests upon his shoulders;and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa. 9:6 NRSV)
But, the end of this story has yet to be written. As the senior angel said, only God has foresight to know where this story is leading. We don’t even have the same vantage point as the Angel, for we can’t look down upon the flow of history from above. All we can do is join with the Prince of Peace in the work of spreading the joy and the love and the peace that is embodied by the Christmas event. It is our calling as followers of the one whose birth we celebrate this night, to participate in spreading the light of God around the globe.
Tonight we will light our candles and sing "Silent Night" and then go into the world as light bearers with the song "Joy to the World" upon our lips and in our hearts. Like that littlest angel, we may not understand the “hows” and the “whys,” of God’s ways, but let us not forget that this is the visited planet, and that God has chosen to visit us in the one who was born the babe of Bethlehem. Therefore let us join the angels and boldly sing boldly: Gloria in Excelsis Deo!