In many churches, Christmas Eve is the first time we hear the Gloria since Advent began. We have been awaiting the coming of glory, and now here it is, the angels singing Gloria in excelsis: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace (Luke 2:14).
Both the song and the occasion speak of a new uniting of heaven and earth. When the shepherds hear the angels sing the first Gloria, it is the only time in the Bible that ordinary people on earth, not dreaming or in a prophetic vision, see what the angels are doing in heaven. The heavens open and the way between heaven and earth is for a moment visible. Hence the angel’s song on this occasion is a fitting way to begin the service of worship on earth, which culminates in the Eucharistic liturgy where we join the host of heaven singing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory” and proceed to receive bread from heaven.
Heaven was always meant to be good for the earth, beginning with the natural blessing of rain and sun that give food from the earth for all living creatures (Gen. 1:29f). This is why God does not see the creation as good on the second day of Genesis, when there is heaven but no earth for it to bless. The creation is incomplete until there is both heaven and earth, first the one then the other, the one for the blessing of the other—and therefore the one is not good without the other.
That is how the dualities in the Bible work, in the biblical logic of otherness . Dualities that could become enmities (heaven and earth, male and female, Jew and Gentile) are meant for the good of one another. But by the same token, the goodness of creation can be disrupted, its perfection delayed, when the one is not good for the other—a theme I have been tracing in connection with male and female, in a series of posts on the early chapters of Genesis over the past several weeks.
But now who could resist jumping far ahead in the story, and glimpsing how heaven and earth themselves are reconciled? In place of enmity and the wrath of God revealed from heaven, there is peace on earth and also—to jump further ahead to the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem—peace in heaven (Luke 19:38).
For what happens in the earth on Christmas Day is a blessing for the whole creation, both earth and heaven. The angels sing glory in the highest because there is a new glory in the highest heaven as a result of a baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem, who is king of the Jews for the blessing of all nations. Heaven itself has something new to sing about, and earth gets to hear of it, the overflow of celestial joy. The angel who first appears to the shepherds announces glad tidings of great joy which shall be for all the people (Luke 2:10), and then is joined by a whole multitude of the heavenly host made glad by the news.
And as the familiar story from Luke proceeds with the shepherds coming to the manger, we find a hint at another duality reconciled, the great human duality of male and female. For as they go forth from the manger, glorifying God for what they have heard and seen, they leave behind Mary, daughter of Eve, pondering this news in her heart (Luke 2:19). Adam’s hope, revealed when he names his wife Eve because she is “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20), has come to an unexpected fruition. Crushing the head of the serpent and defeating death itself, the woman’s seed (Gen. 3:15) will undo the effects of the man’s disobedience.
So on Christmas we join the angels singing glory in the highest, the shepherds telling the news on earth, and Mary pondering these things in her heart. Here for a moment we taste creation made whole and good: heaven and earth at peace, and male and female as well.