“St. Ambrose” by Francisco Goya, 1799

    The Te Deum is an ancient Christian hymn composed in the 3rd or 4th century.  It takes its name from its opening line in Latin, Te Deum laudamus (“We Praise You God”). Throughout the ages it has been sung in thanksgiving or celebration on occasions both religious and secular. Today we pray it (or sing it) in the Liturgy of the Hours at the end of the Office of Readings on Sundays outside of Lent and on solemnities. Its authorship has sometimes been attributed to St. Ambrose and/or St. Augustine, or sometimes St. Nicetas of Remesiana, although it is likely older than any of these suggested authors. I’ve posted the English translation of the hymn and a brief commentary below the clip for those who are interested.

     The Te Deum has been set to music countless times over the centuries.  The clip below features the Classical Madeira orchestra and Madeira Chamber Choir performing what is probably the most recent of these compositions, by the Portuguese composer Pedro Camacho.  Camacho’s setting was first performed in public less than a year and a half ago, in December 2019. Here’s an opportunity to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord by listening to a beautiful combination of new music and a timeless prayer of praise.

TE DEUM

You are God: we praise you;

You are the Lord: we acclaim you;

You are the eternal Father:

All creation worships you.

To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,

Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise:

Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might,

heaven and earth are full of your glory.

The glorious company of apostles praise you.

The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.

The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.

Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you:

Father, of majesty unbounded,

your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,

and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.

You, Christ, are the King of glory,

the eternal Son of the Father.

When you became man to set us free

you did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.

You overcame the sting of death,

and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.

We believe that you will come, and be our judge.

Come then, Lord, and help your people,

bought with the price of your own blood,

and bring us with your saints

to glory everlasting.

Save your people, Lord, and bless your inheritance.

— Govern and uphold them now and always.

Day by day we bless you.

— We praise your name for ever.

Keep us today, Lord, from all sin.

— Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy.

Lord, show us your love and mercy,

— for we have put our trust in you.

In you, Lord, is our hope:

— And we shall never hope in vain.

“The Last Judgment”, by Fra Angelico c. 1450

Commentary on Te Deum

The Te Deum is one of those prayers that every Christian should know. In a relatively few lines it combines some of the spirit (and language) of the psalms of ancient Israel with a highly condensed Christian Creed, all in a form that has been in continual use for most of the history of the Church.

         While nowhere near as old as the psalms, some of which were written a thousand years before the time of Christ, the Te Deum is still very ancient, having been composed in the 3rd or 4th century.  And although it’s not one of them, the Te Deum shows a strong spiritual kinship with the psalms.  There are clear echoes of the venerable Hebrew hymns in the first stanza, in fact, which like Psalms 67 and 100 calls us to joyfully praise our Creator, and invites “all creation” to join in our worship.  

         The next three stanzas give us a kind of spiritual cosmology, specifying in descending sequence the three orders of creatures who participate in this praise.  First the Angels, the highest order of created beings, “who always see the face” of the Father in Heaven, as our Lord put it (Matthew 18:10). The last two lines of the stanza come directly from the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of Heaven, where he sees angels before God’s throne and “And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’” (Isaiah 6:3)

         Next we see the Church Triumphant.  These are holy men and women who went before us and are now experiencing the beatific vision: the Apostles, men chosen by Jesus Christ himself to be his companions and successors; the prophets, who were chosen as God’s representatives to his Chosen People; the Christian Martyrs who witnessed to their Lord with their lives.

         The fourth stanza brings us to the Church Militant, believers living today who unite themselves with the angels and saints in praising their Creator.  I’m not sure how many times I sang or recited this prayer before it really struck me that I wasn’t praying on my own, I was joining all the Hosts of Heaven through eternity in their endless Liturgy of Praise.  It’s an exhilarating realization, but humbling at the same time.

         At this point the prayer begins to turn our attention to the God whom we are all worshiping. Lines 13 through 24 bring us through a brief but beautifully comprehensive recap of the main points of Christian doctrine.  It reads something like a concentrated version of the Nicene Creed:

Lines 23-28, which seem to have originally closed the prayer, include a call for God’s assistance, a reminder of his sacrifice for our salvation, and a prayerful request that we might join our holy forebears before His throne.

         The final section of the Te Deum consists of a series of petitions that were added at some point over the centuries, and have long since become a permanent part of the prayer. These appear to have been draw from the language of the psalms.  Alternating praise with calls for His help and mercy, they bring the prayer to a fitting close.

         I have always appreciated the way the Te Deum does so much so succinctly. In just a few lines we are reminded of the sweep of Salvation History, the Communion of Saints, the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Mission of Jesus Christ from Bethlehem to the New Jerusalem, and all in the form of a joyful song of praise to our God.

         But that’s not all.  For many centuries Christians would sing the Te Deum as a song of celebration and thanks to God.  This was true not only after events of clearly religious significance, such as the Christian victory over the Muslim Turks in the Battle of Lepanto in 1572, but on the occasion of more worldly triumphs as well, in recognition that all good things are a gift from God.  For instance, the English King Henry V is reputed to have ordered his army to sing the hymn after their victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415, an event William Shakespeare includes in his play Henry V:

KING HENRY V:

Come, go we in procession to the village.

And be it death proclaimed through our host

To boast of this or take the praise from God

Which is his only.

FLUELLEN:

Is it not lawful, an please your majesty, to tell

how many is killed?

KING HENRY V:

Yes, captain; but with this acknowledgement,

That God fought for us.

FLUELLEN:

Yes, my conscience, he did us great good.

KING HENRY V:

Do we all holy rites;

Let there be sung ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum;’The dead with charity enclosed in clay . . . (Henry V, Act IV, sc. 8)

The Te Deum, then, like the Psalms, is a concrete connection to the experiences of our predecessors, in this case in a specifically Christian context.

From Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version of Henry V

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