Gestures during the Gloria

Continuing a theme I’ve recently been addressing here, we may consider other ways that the richness of our Catholic liturgical tradition as handed down to us in the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy may be brought to bear on our celebration of the Ordinary Form.

After all, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal — the main body of liturgical law that governs our celebration of the Ordinary Form — has this to say in its most recent edition:

42. The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people, must be conducive to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, to making clear the true and full meaning of its different parts, and to fostering the participation of all. Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. [emphasis added]

Since, as I’ve noted various times, the rubrics of the Ordinary Form are often vague, we sometimes benefit from looking to the older form rubrics to have a smoother and more eloquent ars celebrandi or manner of celebrating. But beyond such considerations, as I mentioned, there is the possibility of that “mutual enrichment” for which Pope Benedict XVI called, thus bringing greater continuity between the two forms of the liturgy.

Today I want to mention some things in this area as regards the singing of the Gloria.

In the Extraordinary Form, the priest ordinarily stands before the altar while reciting the gloria (meanwhile, the choir or schola may be singing it). He is to make several gestures during his recitation:

1. At the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the highest): he extends his hands to about shoulder width (as he does when saying the greeting, “The Lord be with you”), then raises them to about shoulder height, then joins them in front of his chest. This is basically a circular movement. This video, starting at about 18:20, explains and demonstrates this gesture:

The question naturally arises, What does this gesture mean? The great liturgist, Fr. Nicholas Gihr, in his book, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass pp. 405-406, has this to say:

At the words Gloria in excelsis, the priest, without raising his eyes at the time, extends and elevates his hands to the shoulders, thus giving vent to his eagerness, enthusiasm and longing to praise and to magnify God. At Deo he again joins his hands and bows his head profoundly toward the Crucifix on the altar…. for “holy and terrible is the name of God” [Psalm 110, 9]. (my boldface)

This circular hand gesture, then, is a physical expression of the priest’s praise on behalf of both himself and the assembly. And it is particularly fitting that there should be a physical expression here, since the phrase Glory to God in the highest was sung by the angels in honor of the Incarnation (Luke 2:14). This gesture is used at other points in the traditional Mass, and hopefully I’ll be able to write more about this gesture at another time. In any case, the foregoing is the meaning we can attribute to it at this point.

2. At the conclusion of the circular gesture, as he says the word “Deo” (God), he rejoins his hands at the chest, bowing his head in reverence to the name of God. There are also traditionally a few more head bows in this hymn after this moment: namely, at the phrases, “Adoramus te” (we adore you); “Gratias agimus tibi” (we give you thanks); “Suscipe deprecationem nostram” (receive our prayer); and at both instances of “Jesu Christe” (Jesus Christ). Gihr has this to say about the head bows:

This profound inclination of the head is several times repeated, to express interior acts of adoration…, of gratitude…, of petition…, of reverence…, and to give expression to these acts of homage not merely in words, but also by the body in bowing the head.

3. Finally, a third gesture is that of the celebrant’s signing himself at the conclusion of the Gloria, as he says the words “in gloria Dei Patris” (in the glory of God the Father). He then joins his hands as he says “Amen”. Gihr explains the gesture of the sign of the cross here:

At the last words of the Gloria the celebrant signs himself with the sign of the Cross, — principally to close the sublime hymn in a suitable and worthy manner. But as the sign of the Cross is of itself a symbolical representation of the Trinity, it may also be referred to the glory of the Holy Trinity expressed in the concluding words of the hymn…

So, three main gestures: circular hand motion, bows of the head, and sign of the cross. There is no reason why these cannot be incorporated into the Ordinary Form by the celebrant as he sings or recites the Gloria. It makes the greatest sense when it is done in Latin. Here is the Latin text with annotations for the actions:

(circular hand motion) Gloria in excelsis (join hands & head bow) Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonæ voluntatis.
Laudamus te,
benedicimus te,
(head bow) adoramus te,
glorificamus te,
(head bow) gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam,
Domine Deus, Rex cælestis,
Deus Pater omnípotens.
Domine Fili unigenite, (head bow) Jesu Christe,
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris,
qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis;
qui tollis peccata mundi, (head bow) suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus,
(head bow) Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu:
(sign of the cross) in gloria Dei Patris. (join hands) Amen.

In English, the opening gesture doesn’t work quite as well, due to word order. The head bow would fall on “highest” instead of on “God”. However, God is surely the highest reality, so I think having the head bow on that word instead is not totally infelicitous. So here is the English text annotated similarly:

(circular hand motion) Glory to God in the (join hands & head bow) highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise You,
we bless You,
(head bow) we adore You,
we glorify You,
(head bow) we give You thanks for Your great glory.
Lord God, heavenly King, O God Almighty Father.
Lord (head bow) Jesus Christ, Only-Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
You take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us;
You take away the sins of the world,
(head bow) receive our prayer.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy on us.
For You alone are the Holy One,
you alone the Lord,
you alone the Most High,
(head bow) Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit
(sign of the cross) in the Glory of God the Father. (join hands) Amen.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says nothing about any sort of gestures during the Gloria in the two main places where instructions are given on it (nn. 53 and 126); it’s almost as if it takes for granted that we would do it the way it had always been done – i.e., the way narrated above. Number 42 of the GIRM now makes it clearer for us that this is a legitimate way to proceed. Thus a way to bring the singing or reciting of the Gloria by the celebrant into greater continuity with our tradition — also expressing the incarnational joy and reverence that is proper to that moment of the sacred liturgy.

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