Unlike the previous posts in this series about the “Gospel in Song,” regarding the Magnificat and the Benedictus, the popular Christmas song inspired by Luke 2:14 does not derive its name from Saint Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible from the late 4th century AD. Jerome’s phrasing is gloria in altissimis Deo, where altissimis is one Latin variation meaning “highest.” Instead, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, or “Glory to God in the highest,” actually has its roots in an “old Latin” hymn from the early 4th century. Tradition suggests that it was Saint Hilary of Poiters (c.300-367 AD), a famous Western bishop of the church, who popularized the text for use in Christian worship.
Hilary of Poitiers grew up in a pagan home, receiving a thoroughly pagan education, before coming to Christ. When Hilary eventually became a leader in the church, he was embroiled in the Arian controversy, a theological movement that swept through Hilary’s Christian community. The Arians did not believe that Jesus, as the Son of God, was truly divine, so they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, not too much unlike what Jehovah’s Witnesses today believe. When pressure came from the government for Hilary to reject the Trinity as well, Hilary refused to comply and was soon banished. Hilary believed that a denial of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity would trivialize the “glory to God in the highest” that is proclaimed in this old Christian hymn. Hilary’s stand to defend the truth of the Bible encouraged the faithful, and eventually the heresy of Arianism was rooted out of the church. Though Hilary of Poitiers is often forgotten by Christians today, the great hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo, that is associated with his legacy, continues to be remembered all over the world.
The first movement of Antonia Vivaldi’s Gloria in Excelsis Deo, with a Latin/English translation here, performed in the National Auditorium of Music in Madrid: