In other Rites, there are tons of really long hymns of praise integral to the structure of the Ordinary of the Mass. In the Latin Rite, this and the Sanctus are about all we got. So it’s kinda important to get right, even if we don’t use it at all Masses in all times of the Church year.
Nobody’s quite sure just how old the Gloria is. They’re pretty sure it goes back to the third century (that’s the 200’s) and some think it goes back to the first (that’s the 00’s). It’s not all from the Bible, and was apparently written by a private person for devotional reasons. Fortescue in the Catholic Encyclopedia calls this sort of thing from back then the “psalmi idiotici” — which doesn’t come from idiotic, but from “idio-“, self, like “idiosyncrasy” — the personal psalms, if you will. Originally it was in Greek, according to Fortescue, which makes sense since Greek was the common language of the Empire. So… a joyful ancient devotional hymn from the earliest days of Christianity under persecution, like the cheerful “Phos Hilaron”.
Anyway, it was first introduced into Mass at Christmas, and later got put into Masses for big feasts only. But gradually it got into more common use. We still don’t say it during Lent, most weekdays, etc., because it’s still a hymn of special joy.
The new English translation of the Gloria is obviously superior to the old, because it doesn’t rearrange the poetry or leave out entire lines. If you ever felt that the Gloria in English is kinda disorganized — well, it was.
The first part of the Gloria is kind of a swirl of glory, sorta like the cloud in the temple. There’s a reason the other name for the Gloria is the Angelic Hymn: we are clearly greeting the Messiah and singing with the angels, who of course are right there in church with us, whether we see them or not. (There’s a reason artists sculpt and paint angels all over the place in old churches, and it’s not just because wings are purty.)
It all starts with a direct quote from the angels singing over Bethlehem:
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
This comes straight from the Latin Vulgate (or one of its versions, anyway):
“Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra, pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis.”
Interestingly, this poetic structure mimics the Greek very closely. If you’ll suffer my bad transcription of bible.cc’s useful Chain Link transliteration of the Greek, you’ll see this:
“Doxa en hupsistos Theos
kai epi ge, eirene en anthropos eudokia.”
That’s “ge” as in “geo” or “Gaia”. “DOXa” and “euDOKia” are sorta-kinda related words, so there’s a lot a lot of paralleling and shared sounds there. (Anyway, see what St. Jerome did there? Just like the Greek. Not pulled out of his butt.)
It’s a nice sort of inverted parallel, and it was never anything grammatically necessary in Latin, Greek, Aramaic or any other language the angels might have sung in. It was done for beauty’s sake, on purpose, not as an accident of language; so any language that can keep it, probably should.
Here’s how it works. “Glory to God” and “peace to men of goodwill” stand on the outside, and the locations are on the inside of the phrase. Isn’t that nice? * Like this:
Glory to God
in the highest,
and on earth
peace to people of good will.
The older way of doing this at a sung Mass was for the priest basically to intone (chant) the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” part, and then to have the choir (representing the people) to sing/chant everything from “Et in terra pax” onward. Kind of a nice answer format, as if the angels announce and the people of Earth reply with a hymn of their own. (But of course it is pretty standard in all chant and a lot of Catholic prayer for somebody to start things off with the first phrase, and everybody to chime in afterward.)
Then we get into elaborations, with a nice parallel structure. The Latin sure sounds cool:
Laudamus te, benedicimus te,
Adoramus te, glorificamus te,
It’s interesting, because you could say this in the opposite order, like the Te Deum does. But somehow, “Te laudamus, te benedicimus, te adoramus, te glorificamus” just doesn’t have the right roll to it, so the poet made a good choice. (Also, it hisses a lot, which is the bane of all choir directors and songwriters. Probably back then, too.)
Anyway, back to the new translation:
We praise you, we bless you,
we adore you, we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory,
You see what I mean about swirling? Here we are, at the end of the first part, back at the word “glory” again along with “glorify”. This is a feature, not a bug.
This is where the lack of catechesis, and bad English translation, on this hymn really starts to bite, though. It seems that we’re covering different kinds of prayer: praise, blessing, adoration. But what exactly is it, to glorify God? Are we summing up the others? Or are we talking about living so as to give God glory in our works? Or what? I’m not up on this. *
What is clear is that, at the end of the first part of the Gloria, we come to a phrase that’s a double-entendre. It usually was forbidden to speak of the secret, sacred things in front of catechumens and unbelievers, but here we are: “We give you thanks for your great glory.”
“We give you thanks” does mean thanks, yes, which is one of our duties to God in prayer. But it’s also talking about giving thanks as in _the_ Thanks-giving, the Eucharist. So — we celebrate the Eucharist “for your great glory.” And since, in a minute, we’ll be addressing the Son, this is a natural lead-in to the second part of the Gloria, as well as summing up all prayer and adoration to God in the Mass.
* “Isn’t that nice?” — Like angel’s wings. :)
* “I’m not up on this” — (No, that doesn’t mean I’m moaning that I can’t understaaand all this haaard stuff so taaake it awaaaay. It means I want somebody to teach me, instead of burying me head downward in the dark like an onion, for all my 39 years as a Catholic! Quit shirking, American church!)