“Angels We Have Heard on High”

"…The angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them…" (Lk. 2.9)

     INTRO.: A song which mentions the importance of the angel and his message in relation to the birth of Christ is "Angels We Have Heard On High." The text is a traditional French carol. It comes from an unknown source, is believed to date from the 18th century, and was first published in the 1855 Nouveau recueil de cantiques. The usual English translation is attributed to James Chadwick, who was born on Apr. 24, 1813, at Drogheda, Ireland. Educated at Ushaw College, Durham, England, he became a Roman Catholic priest in 1836, later serving as a Professor and President of the College. This translation first appeared in The Holy Family Hymns of 1860 and then was altered in the 1862 Crown of Jesus Music, Part II, by editor Henri Frederick Hemy (1818-1888). In 1866 Chadwick was appointed the Roman Catholic Bishop of Newcastle, England, where he died on May 14, 1882. The present version of the text appeared in the 1916 Carols Old and New edited by Charles L. Hutchins.

     The tune (Gloria, Iris, or Les Agnes) is a traditional French melody. It first appeared as a setting for an English text in R. R. Chope’s 1875 Carols for Use in the Church. The modern arrangement was made by Edward Shippen Barnes, who was born on Sept. 14, 1887, at Seabright, NJ. After studying music with Harry B. Jepson and Horatio Parker at Yale University from 1910 to 1911, he then studied with Louis Verne, Vincent D’Indy, and Abel Decaux in Paris, France. Serving as an organist in New York City, NY, Philadelphia, PA, and Santa Monica, CA, he was also a composer, producing organ symphonies, an arranger, and a publisher of books of religious music. His arrangement of this song first appeared in The New Church Hymnal of 1937. During World War I Barnes served in the Naval Reserve and died on Feb. 14, 1958, at Idyllwild, CA.

     Other translations of the same song have been made, such as "Shepherds in the fields abiding" by George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934) and "Hearken, all! what holy singing" which appeared anonymously sometime before 1923, but these have never been as popular.  Among hymnbooks published during the twentieth century by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ, the tune appeared with what Forrest M. McCann says is Grantham’s translation of the French carol "When the crimson sun was set," but then later cites McCutcheon as saying the anonymous text is the refrain to the hymn carol beginning, "Hearken all what holy singing," in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 edited by E. L. Jorgenson.  The song in its usual form appeared in the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater.  Today, the song may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church (with the "When the crimson sun was set" version), the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1990 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard, the latter two with a harmonization of the tune which was made for the 1956 Baptist Hymnal by Warren Matthewson Angell (b. 1907); and 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann.

     The song reminds us of the message that the angel brought to the shepherds about the birth of Jesus.

I. Stanza 1 has the shepherds stating what they heard
"Angels we have heard on high, Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply, Echoing their joyous strains."
 A. The shepherds saw a multitude of the heavenly hosts: Lk. 2.13
 B. We do not know whether the angels were actually singing or not, but they were saying "Glory to God in the highest": Lk. 2.14
 C. The Biblical text does not give much information about the topography of Bethlehem, and it is quite probable that there are plains in the vicinity and mountains or at least high hills nearby, but we do know that the shepherds were out in a field: Lk. 2.8

II. Stanza 2 asks the shepherds why they are so happy
"Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong?
Say, what may the tidings be, Which prolong your heavenly song?"
(the original of line 3 read, "What the gladsome tidings be?")
 A. The question will be answered in the next stanza, but that which made the shepherds so jubilant was the birth of Jesus Christ: Lk. 2.1-7
 B. The tidings of this birth were brought to them by the angel: Lk. 2.10
 C. And they evidently prolonged their heavenly song because they made known abroad the saying that was told them: Lk. 2.17

III. Stanza 3 has the shepherds answering as the cause of their joy
"Come to Bethlehem, and see Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee Christ, the Lord, the newborn King."
 A. They would tell us to do as they did and come to Bethlehem: Lk. 2.15
 B. They did this to check the tidings that the angel gave them of the birth of the Savior: Lk. 2.9
 C. And what they found was "the Savior, who is Christ the Lord": Lk. 2:11

IV. Stanza 4 encourages others, including Mary and Joseph, to join in the praise
"See within a manger laid Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth!
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, With us sing our Savior’s birth."
(the original read: "See Him in a manger laid, Whom the choirs of angels praise;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, While our hearts in love we raise.")
 A. The shepherds found the baby just as the angel said, lying in a manger: Lk. 2.12
 B. They also found Mary and Joseph there with the baby: Lk. 2.16
 C. And as a result of their joy, others heard about the birth of the Savior as well: Lk. 2.18

     CONCL.: The two stanzas from "When the crimson sun is set" used in some of our books almost seem like preliminary stanzas to the ones cited above:
1. "When the crimson sun is set Low behind the wintry sea,
On the bright and cold midnight Bursts a sound of heavenly glee."
2. "Shepherds watching by their fold, On the crisp and hoary plain,
In the sky bright hosts espy, Singing in a gladsome strain."
The only possible problems with these stanzas are the words "wintry" and "cold," perhaps suggesting the commonly held view that Christ was born in December for which there is absolutely no Biblical evidence. The wording could be changed to read, "Low behind the western sea" and "On the bright and starry night." The chorus says, "Gloria in excelcis Deo," which is the Latin for "Glory to God in the Highest." This song simply tells the story of the shepherds abiding in their fields and how the angel appeared to them to announce the birth of Jesus, as related in the scripture.  While we were not there, it would be interesting to think about what it would have been like if we too were present and could have said, "Angels, We Have Heard On High."


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