And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom He is well pleased!”
Luke 2: 13-14
We are encouraged constantly to read the Bible. Unless you have a children’s Bible, there are no pictures in most Bible texts. Icons on the walls of our churches depict some of the scenes of the life of Christ, but these are always still scenes, none of the figures move. Even in the icon of the Nativity, we see a couple of shepherds, even though there were probably more. We also see a couple of angels, even though the Bible account of the Nativity from Luke says it was the “multitude of the heavenly host.” (Luke 2:13) One thing we probably don’t do often enough is pause and consider what these amazing events and miracles actually looked like.
For the next seven days, our theme is “Worship Like the Angels.” We will be focusing on both worshipping and angels. For today, a fitting beginning is to combine the two, to reflect on the angels above the city of Bethlehem who worshipped and praised God with the presence of shepherds and their flocks. Have you ever stopped to wonder what this might have looked like or what it must have sounded like?
There is a very powerful visual in Luke 23:44-45 at the crucifixion, where we read “It was about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed.” This was essentianlly an eclipse of the sun, an occasion when day became like night. Luke 2:13-14 paints the opposite picture. In the darkness of the night, the sky is filled with a “multitude of the heavenly host,” effective during the darkness of night into the brightness of the day. The light of the moon and the stars would have been eclipsed by the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of angels.
I’ve heard many good choirs in my life. The choir in my parish numbers about 20 members each Sunday and they are outstanding. Years ago I had the chance to hear a choir of about 80 people sing Handel’s Messiah. The performance was amazing. And during the Christmas season, one source of Christmas carols I listen to is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who number several hundred. The sound is majestic. Imagine what a choir of thousands would sound like! And somehow the whole town of Bethlehem missed it.
This “hymn” in Luke 2:14 is the first line of what is called “The Doxology” in the Orthodox Church, which is sung immediately preceding the Divine Liturgy. The word “doxology” means to “glory” (doxa) with words (logos). Thus, the Doxology is a hymn that gives glory to God and we use this hymn virtually every day. It is part of the Orthros service almost every day. When a Divine Liturgy follows Orthros, this hymn is generally sung. When Orthros is done without Divine Liturgy attached, and also on some days when it is, the Doxology is read.
The other nuance of this hymn of the angels is how the phrase “ke epi gis erini, en anthopis evdokia” is translated. It is literally translated “and on earth peace, in men of good will.” The Bible translation from the RSV (Revised Standard Version) which is what I generally quote on the Prayer Team, offers “and on earth peace among men with whom He is well pleased!” (Luke 2:14) Many times we hear this translated as “and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.” The problem with this last translation is that it makes peace seem like a gift for everyone, whereas the original Greek states the peace is a gift offered to those who are of goodwill, or as in the case of the RSV, those with whom God is pleased. Peace is one of the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5: 22-23) and must be cultivated by each person. It is cultivated in tandem with the grace of the Holy Spirit working in us. However, peace is not forced or imposed on anyone. Thus the hymn of the angels is not for peace for everyone because they merely breathe and are alive, but peace for those who please God because they are people who are seeking peace and goodwill towards others.
The song of the angels should put both awe and motivation into us. Awe at what the awesome sound and sight must have been. No wonder the shepherds decided to drop everything and go to the manger. And motivation to be people of good will and people who cultivate peace in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth. Today Bethlehem receives him who is ever seated with the Father. Today Angels glorify in a manner fitting God the babe that is born. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will among men. (Idiomelon, Praises, Orthros of the Nativity, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: How can you describe what thousands of angels praising God would look and sound like?