Thursday, December 23, 2010

Excelsior? Excel Center? Excess? Exits? ...Excelsis?

Not quite the sound I heard on the radio...

A few days ago I was driving home from work, and, like most of the US population, I was listening to Christmas music. (To be honest, the radio didn't give me much of a choice.)

As I passed billboards for Duluth filled with smiling snowmobilers, an energetic voice burst through the speakers, rather thrilled to be singing his remix version of Angels We Have Heard on High. All the words were the same, but his drum set glorias were far more punchy than the original carol. These angels were no harp-carrying variety.

My traditional preferences aside, his effort was enthusiastic. He was trying to be relevant. Hip. Modern. And yet, he was still singing the Latin words gloria in excelsis Deo.

If you grew up in church, especially one that uses red-covered hymnbooks with gold lettering, you might know what those words mean. But more often than not, we sing those consonants out of habit, and the words are blared out in Macy’s without a thought.

Gloria in excelsis Deo. Or, in English, Glory to God in the highest.

I don’t deny the beauty of Latin. I was one of those overambitious homeschoolers who studied Latin in grade school. I can still conjugate the verb to love and recite sentences about Caesar.

But, for all my linguistic affinity, I am glad for English. Although I delight in forming the Latin sounds, meaning is lost when I only hear the words that the Romans used. I am more apt to skip over it. More apt to ignore it. More apt to wonder if I’m hitting the right notes on that everlasting descent of gloria than the praise that ought to result.

For over 2,000 languages without Scripture, the meaning of Christmas is even more obscured. Many haven’t heard at all, and for those who are fortunate to attend church in a trade language, the readings can be just as rote and impenetrable as our own in excelsis Deo.

It was for Beatrice, an Ugandan woman who faithfully attended church but lacked Scriptures in her mother tongue. Despite Sunday after Sunday of straining to understand and battering her ears to comprehend, Scripture remained confusing and dark; she wondered at its meaning, but kept silent. Who could she ask? There was no Bible to read, no Wikipedia to query strange words, no Christmas cards with calligraphy spilling over in red and green. But, on Christmas Day a few years ago, Beatrice’s ear caught something different, something she knew.  Lubwisi. For the first time in her own language, Beatrice heard about the baby lying in the manger, the Savior who came as a child and desired to enter her life. She finally understood John’s words in Mark 1:1-8 as "people preparing their lives and hearts for the coming of the Lord Jesus who has all the power to save people from their sins, including her.”

She finally understood the meaning of Christmas. Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the highest.

And so, this Christmas, as you sing your own glorias and wonder at the spelling of excelsis, remember those nearly 350 million people who are the same place as Beatrice was, waiting in silence. Pray that the understanding of the first Noel (that’s French for Christmas, in case you were curious) will become clear to them too.

Wycliffe would like to thank you for being a part of this work to break the silence:

Merry Christmas!