I finally realized “Angels we have heard on high” is a conversation

Christmas carols officially began in the Gentry house Sunday night. While hunting down a diaper for a much-needed change, I was humming a tune. As I started the diaper change, I finally named the tune: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

In the middle of changing the very, very, very dirty diaper, I realized why that tune had come to my mind: CHRISTMAS IS COMING!

Just a month away!

When the diaper change was done and I’d deposited it in the outside trash can (it was that bad) and my hands were washed at least once or twice, we sat down to dinner. I sang a few Christmas carols at the table when I had finished eating but the kids were still finishing.

And that’s when I finally realized the real meaning behind “Angels We Have Heard on High.”


This is one of Becky’s favorite Christmas songs, and I have enjoyed it for a long time. I have a fond memory related to this hymn after singing it in church one day and wondering what gloria in exelcis deo could mean. I was probably 8 or 9. My mom (who probably knew exactly what it meant) encouraged me to call her brother Derrick, who had served a Spanish-speaking mission, to ask him; He explained that it was probably Latin for “Glory to God in the highest.” Not only was this a good memory of an interaction with my uncle, but it also felt good to satisfy my curiosity by asking someone who knew better than I did—a method I use to learn a lot.

I appreciated “Angels We Have Heard on High” even more once I started learning how to follow the bass notes and sing parts. It’s a fun song to sing!

But I never understood the full meaning of the song.

I have always thought the message was the same as one of my personal favorites, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It’s just a song saying angels came and sang, right?


(Am I obligated to write a sentence consisting only of the word “wrong” after ending a previous sentence with “right?”)

As I sang the words Sunday night, I applied my English major skills to actually think about the lyrics for the first time.

Angels we have heard on high

sweetly singing o’er the plains

and the mountains in reply

echoing their joyous strains:

Glory to God in the highest!

If you revise the first line slightly, you have “We have heard angels.” So the first verse is really a way of saying “We have heard angels singing ‘Glory to God in the Highest.'”

Who heard the angels? Who is singing the first verse?

According to the second verse (a response to the first) it was the shepherds.

Shepherds, why this jubilee?

Why your joyous strains prolong?

What the gladsome tidings be?

Which inspire your heavenly song?

Why are you singing? What did the angels tell you that brings this kind of joy to your heart and voice?

The shepherds reply:

Come to Bethlehem and see

him whose birth the angels sing.

Come adore on bended knee

Christ the Lord, the newborn king.

This song, it turns out, is about Luke 2:17-18.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

angelsAs the shepherds spread the story far and wide that they had heard the sweeping song of rejoicing angels, people wondered. What inspired all this joy? The shepherds told them, as Jesus would later say, “Come and see.”

I always thought this Christmas carol was just a song about angels and the message they brought to shepherds outside Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. It is that, too. But it also describes a conversation that the shepherds had, and a conversation we should have throughout our lives.

The good news of Jesus Christ’s birth, life, and atonement, ought to fill us with the greatest joy. I have not heard angels singing on high, but I have seen the glory of God manifest in my life and the lives of others around me: prayers answered, sins forgiven, habits overcome, love found, peace beyond understanding.

As we share that joy, we might encounter questions. Why are you happy when things seem to be difficult in your life? Why are you so willing to give and to serve others? Why are you singing “Glory to God”?

The reply: Come and see.

God sent his only begotten son from the highest realms of heaven to be born in a lowly stable and laid in a manger. Why? So he could live as one of the least of us, suffer what we suffer, experience what we experience, and then give his life and be resurrected so that we can have eternal life. Life still has difficult moments—sometimes very long moments—but ultimately I know that God loves me and is working for my good.