By Steven Norris
“Gloria in excelsis deo.” It is probably the most familiar of the four Christmas songs in Luke’s gospel. One of my favorite moments in our traditional Christmas Eve service is when one of our young people stands before the church and reads that sweet story of Christ’s birth.
As the old King James Version renders it: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. . . 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, good will toward men.’”
What comes to mind when you hear the term glory? A victor’s wreath, maybe, draped around the shoulders of the first-place finisher? A royal crown, scepter, robes, and an entourage fit for a king or queen? Do you think of brilliance and light blinding your eyes?
The Greek word that Luke uses here is doxa — a word that means splendor or brightness but can also mean majesty or an exalted state. Joseph Thayer, an expert in biblical Greek, suggests that doxa literally means “what evokes good opinion, i.e., that something has inherent, intrinsic worth.”
To speak of God’s glory is to affirm that God has intrinsic worth and value. God’s value doesn’t come from the gifts or blessings that we may or may not receive from God, but from the very character and nature of who God is. To sing with the angels, “glory to God” is to affirm that this value is infinite in nature and exhaustive in scope.
Doxa finds its counterpart in the Hebrew concept of kavod. Also translated as “glory,” kavod refers to something that is weighty and of great substance. To understand this, compare a feather to a stone boulder. When the winds come, the feather is blown to and fro with ease. The boulder, however, is a thing of substance and will not be tossed about but will remain steadfast, even in the midst of a tumult. In the same way, God’s glory is a thing of substance and significance, not tossed about by the changing winds of circumstance.
It is God’s glory — the glory to which the angels testify, the glory of which we sing in Christmas carols, and the glory ascribed to the babe in the manger — that holds us firm this Christmas season. We need to be reminded that we are anchored to a God of magnitude and consequence. We are held by a God of wisdom, might, power, goodness, grandeur, and grace.
This Christmas, I invite you to join with the angels and offer your own doxology (literally, “a word of praise”). How has God held you firm over the past year? How has God gotten you through a difficult circumstance? How has God been your anchor or shelter in the midst of the storm? Take a few moments this Christmas to offer a word of thanks and praise, not just for what God has done, but for who God is.