The Glory Be prayer is hundreds of years old. The author did not know that the world will end when the sun goes nova in a few billion years, reducing earth to a burnt-out cinder. The last line is “world without end.” Why don’t they change it to maybe “heaven without end”?
— Tom in Granite City
Great question! The Glory Be was first prayed by monks in the fourth century to end every Psalm of the Breviary with a “small doxology” [“doxa” being the Greek word for “glory”], reflecting, in a far shorter format, our exaltation of God proclaimed in the doxology of the Gloria at Mass. Later, the prayer became popular in countless hymns and then to conclude each decade of the rosary. The next phrase obviously draws its wording from Christ’s command to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19).
The second half, in the Latin says: “sicut erat in principio [‘as it was in the beginning’], et nunc [‘is now’], et semper [‘and ever shall be’], et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.” The first part of this phrase references the wording that John uses in the Prologue of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word … ,” extrapolated into all time: beginning, now, and always. What about the last words though? To drill into that phrase, we have to go back to the Old Testament.
In Hebrew, to emphasize something, they will often repeat words. For example, in Genesis 37:33, to emphasize that Joseph has definitely been torn to pieces, the words of Jacob are literally “…tarof tarof Yosef”, literally “… cutting to pieces, cut to pieces, Joseph.” Or, think of the Song of Songs, where the title of the book is itself a repetition to emphasize the excellence of this song. We find this used in Psalm 90:2 to emphasize God’s eternity when the Psalmist prays: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”
It is this kind of phrasing that the inspired New Testament writers drew on when they give glory to God “forever and ever” (see Galatians 1:5, Philippians 4:20, 1 Timothy 1:17, 2 Timothy 4:18, Hebrews 13:21, 1 Peter 4:11, and Revelation 1:6, 5:13, 7:12, 10:6, 11:5, 15:7, 19:3, 20:10, and 22:5). This phrase is translated into Latin as “Et in saecula saeculorum,” which, like the Greek and Hebrew, repeats the word — this time “saecula,” meaning an “age” or “generation” of time — to emphasize the length we’re talking about here: ages-upon-ages, generation-to-generation, forever-and-ever, etc.
In 1541, Henry VIII, and then in Cramer’s Book of Common Prayer, “saecula saeculorum” is translated as “world without end,” trying to express eternity in human language, and this wording was picked up by the Douai-Rheims (Catholic) and King James (Anglican) translations of the Bible. The phrase is still meant to express the eternality of God, not of the world, but in modern English it doesn’t really get that across very well. For this reason, in the Breviary, the prayer is now translated “… and will be forever. Amen.” — though in popular devotion, usually the earlier translation is still used.
Fascinating, isn’t it, that the prayer is not trying to make a cosmological claim about the world lasting forever, precisely the opposite! But our translation confronts the reality that our language always falls short of God! Maybe the clumsy wording can at least remind us of that.
Father Dominic Rankin is parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and has a license in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Rome.