Almost every morning, over a wee cup of coffee, I pray Morning Prayer from the BCP. When Thomas Cranmer translated and revised the liturgy for Reformational English use in the 1500s, only one of the ancient/mediaeval canticles made the cut — and it’s in the BCP service of Morning Prayer under the title ‘Te Deum Laudamus.’
Almost every morning, over a wee cup of coffee, I pray the ‘Te Deum’ in Cranmer’s Tudor translation. Sometimes I sing it. If you are not using a version of the historic BCP, you can find the ‘Te Deum’ in Celebrating Common Prayer on page 259; a version is in the Canadian Book of Alternative Services on page 94 in the PDF version. It is part of the service of Vigils in the Roman tradition; I see it on page 906 of Benedictine Daily Prayer.
As I said, it is not in Scripture. But it is ancient. And Latin.
The ‘Te Deum’ is a Latin prose hymn from the fourth or fifth century. For a long time, people thought it was perhaps by St Ambrose, one of the original Latin hymnists (one whose hymns, see my personal blog), or perhaps by St Hilary of Poitiers or St Augustine of Hippo. More recently, it was argued that the missionary-bishop, Nicetas of Remesiana (d. 414), was the author because a good number of early Irish manuscripts attribute it to him.
According to One Hundred Latin Hymns by Peter G. Walsh with Christopher Husch, the current idea is that the ‘Te Deum’ is anonymous, born in the Easter Vigils of the ancient church. This birthplace makes sense of its location in the Roman liturgy of the hours.
Wherever it was born and whoever wrote it, the ‘Te Deum’ is about 1600 years old — about as far from us as Christ was from Cranmer. A hymn of the ancient church, from the most holy of nights. Ancient and medieval Christians went all-out for Easter. This was the chief of feasts, when we commemorated in a special way the rising of Christ from the dead, when he destroyed death with his own death.
To highlight the glory of this feast, Ambrose writes:
Why should more be said? By the death of One the world was redeemed. For Christ, had He willed, need not have died, but He neither thought that death should be shunned as though there were any cowardice in it, nor could He have saved us better than by dying. And so His death is the life of all. We are signed with the sign of His death, we show forth His death when we pray; when we offer the Sacrifice we declare His death, for His death is victory, His death is our mystery, His death is the yearly recurring solemnity of the world. What now should we say concerning His death, since we prove by this Divine Example that death alone found immortality, and that death itself redeemed itself. ~On the Death of His Brother Satyrus 2.46
Each year, for this feast of feasts, the Christian community would gather and spend the entire night from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday together as a vigil. There would be prayers, hymns, and preaching. One of the hymns that arose in this context, alongside the ‘Te Deum’ that would move from Easter to daily use, was the ‘Exsultet‘, a beautiful hymn of praise.
Easter is my favourite holiday; I love the hymns (‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today’), the lilies in church, the chocolate, the celebration. I love the solemnity of that final Lenten week that makes the joy of Easter Sunday so much more potent. Trampling down death by death (as the Orthodox apolytikion says), Christ saved us! Easter is the day of Gospel.
I have some non-liturgical friends of a stronger Reformed persuasion than myself who argue that ‘every Sunday should be Easter.’ And so it should be. So it is.
The ‘Te Deum’, however, makes every morning (or night-time vigil, if you’re a Benedictine!) Easter. Even better — as the sun rises, we remember that the Son rose. Of course, the content of the ‘Te Deum’ is not reflective of its Paschal (that is, Easter-y) origins. Rather, it is the most perfect, natural response to God’s saving grace (my translation, consciously at variance with the BCP to provoke thought):
You, God, we praise,
you, the Lord, we confess,
you, eternal Father,
all the earth venerates.
Worship, not philosophy, not theology, not evangelism, the truest, best response to salvation.
To you all the angels,
to you the heavens and all the powers,
to you the cherubim and seraphim
with unending voice cry out
Let us join their thrice-holy cry…
Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of Sabaoth
full are the heavens and the earth
with the majesty of your glory.
And as I sing this with my wee coffee, I am not alone.
You the glorious chorus of Apostles,
you the praiseworthy number of prophets,
you the white-clad army of martyrs praise
You, throughout the orb of the lands (or earth),
the holy church confesses
the Father of measureless majesty,
your true, only-begotten, to-be-venerated Son,
as well as the Holy Paraclete Spirit.
The Trinity is the Gospel. And the ontological chasm between the Trinity and us was bridged by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
You are the king of glory, O Christ,
you the everlasting Son of the Father,
you, with the sharpness of death defeated,
have opened the kingdom of heaven to those who believe.
You, sitting at the right hand of God
in the glory of the Father,
are believed to come in future as judge.
Here the hymn originally ended. So here I end tonight — in worship of Christ, our God.