Confessing Jesus as Lord: praying the Te Deum

The Anglican Daily Office, Matins and Evensong in the Book of Common Prayer, can rightly be claimed as the most successful ‘people’s Office’ of Christian history. Its utter simplicity of structure and unchanging content has made it a form of daily prayer that requires little liturgical knowledge. It fits precisely what those of us who work in education are re-discovering: the need for memorisation through repetition.

One of the casualties of liturgical renewal in the church since the 1960’s has been the familiarity of Anglicans with key texts. One of these is the Te Deum. Unlike most of the texts in the Office the Te Deum is not to be found in the Bible. It is an early Christian hymn.

I have to admit that although I have prayed the Te Deum for many decades I have given it very little attention. It is a prayer that, in line with tradition, I have prayed in thanksgiving for particular events. But I don’t think I have even spent time on it in lectio. Unlike many other of the texts of the Office, the biblical canticles and psalms, there are few (any?) popular meditations or reflections on the Te Deum.

I was pleased, therefore, to read an article in the (always excellent) journal Worship in the September 2016 edition, on the origins and proper translation of the Te Deum.

The author, Eoin de Bhaldraithe, is a Cistercian monk at Bolton Abbey, County Kildare, where I was warmly welcomed a number of years ago on a passing visit.

De Bhaldraithe in one of his footnotes quotes the famous compliment to Anglicanism from Robert Taft in his The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West:

“To its great merit the Anglican communion alone of all Western Christian Churches has preserved to some extent at least the daily services of morning prayer and evensong as a living part of parish worship.”

The article is interesting in its discussion of the proper translation of the Te Deum. He quotes the work of Jean Magne (which I have not been able to locate) “whose lifelong work was studying a common phenomenon in the early church – changing hymns addressed to Christ so that they were directed to the Father instead.

As the church developed its Trinitarian doctrine it became accepted that prayer is addressed TO the Father, THROUGH the Son, in the power OF the Holy Spirit. But, of course, it makes much more sense of the Te Deum if it is addressed to the Son. Why tell ‘God’ that he is God? But acknowledging Jesus as God is a Christian profession of faith.

The Latin of the first two sections presents particular problems: “Te Deum laudamus, te dominum confitemur” Both phrases are in the accusative although in English translations (eg as in the Breviary) the second is transmuted to the vocative “We acclaim you as Lord”.

De Bhaldarithe proposes that the phrasing is suggestive of Philippians 2:10 “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” and he proposes “you are Lord, we confess you.” Adding “acclaim”: to the first phrase, although not a literal translation achieves “near perfect” parallelism. Close to Thomas’s “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28) this also makes sense of the use of the Te Deum on Sunday morning, the dawn of the resurrection.

The article goes on to discuss other issues with the translation of this ancient hymn which may have its origins in an original Greek text (it is not the work of Ambrose despite the title often given it of Ambrosian). I recommend the whole article, and indeed, the journal. However, this is enough for me. Understanding this text Christologically makes sense of it: Yes, Jesus: You are God: we acclaim you! You are Lord: we confess you!

I love singing the Te Deum early on a Sunday morning before the day’s Eucharist. It is important to remind ourselves that we confess Jesus as Lord and God before preaching, before presiding. I hope that it will continue to be an important part of every Anglican’s memorised prayers.

Those of us who were at Chichester Theological College in the early 1990s will have fond memories of our chaplain, Brother Reginald SSF, teaching chant, and his very simple setting of the Te Deum, which I have used constantly over the last 30 years without tiring of it. It can be found here with a responsorial setting from Burnham Abbey.

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