Te Deum

Revelation 1: 4b-8, Psalm 93, John 18: 33-37

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May we pray.

We praise thee, O God:
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee,
the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud;
the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim
continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy :
Lord God of Sabaoth,
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty
of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world
doth acknowledge thee;
The Father of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honorable, true, and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man
thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants,
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints in glory everlasting.

O Lord, save thy people
and bless thine heritage.
Govern them, and lift them up for ever.
Day by day we magnify thee;
And we worship thy Name ever, world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us
as our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted;
let me never be confounded. (“Te Deum,” Book of Common Prayer)


The great hymn of the church known as the “Te Deum” is perhaps the greatest Christian hymn of praise ever penned.  It is certainly the oldest still in regular usage, attributed variously to Saints Ambrose, Augustine, and Hilary, and to Nicetas, bishop of Remesiana, in any case dating to the fourth century.  The text, in any of myriad musical settings, is frequently programmed in worship services that extol the greatness of God as reflected in the greatness of some human personage.  The election of a pope, the consecration of a bishop, or the canonization of a saint are all highly appropriate occasions for a “Te Deum,” and it has been known to be used on secular occasions as well, such as the announcement of a peace treaty or the coronation of a king or queen.  You may be interested to know, particularly if you are Catholic, that a plenary indulgence is available if you are present in a recitation or solemn chant of the “Te Deum” on New Year’s Eve.

Given the many images of the kingship of Christ in the “Te Deum,” with attendant symbols of judge, governor, and lord, it is also highly appropriate to sing this great hymn today, on Christ the King Sunday.  Thanks be to God for liturgically sensitive church musicians!  Indeed, for the offertory today, the Marsh Chapel Choir, under the direction of Dr. Scott Alan Jarrett, and with Mr. Justin Thomas Blackwell at the organ, will offer a setting of the “Te Deum” hymn by Franz Joseph Haydn.  Commissioned by Empress Marie Therese, wife of Franz I of Austria, this particular setting is notable for being an entirely choral work, lacking in the virtuosic solo lines characteristic of Haydn, and for its setting in the key of C major, often associated with music for great feasts of the church.  Furthermore, this setting is in the hallmark form of the classical era, namely the concerto, with two sprightly passages surrounding a central slow movement.

Okay, end of music history lesson.  What does any of this have to do with anything?  The “Te Deum” is textually a hymn of praise, and this has deep resonances on this day when we extol Christ as king.  The feast of Christ the King is celebrated interdenominationally among Catholics and Protestants on the last Sunday of the Christian year, which is to say the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent.  Furthermore, Christ as king has deep resonances with the Eastern Orthodox symbol of Christos Pantokrator, which may be translated as Christ almighty or Christ in judgment, and is depicted here at Marsh Chapel in our rose window at the front of the sanctuary.

Praise is, ultimately, the most appropriate response of subjects for their rulers.  This is both because rulers provide so many benefits to their subjects and because rulers are in their very nature majestic and glorious, and thus deserving of praise.  It is little wonder that in the pre-Christian Roman Empire the emperors were understood to be gods.  When Christianity came along, the Judaic emphasis on the sovereignty of God over against all earthly temporal powers meant that emperors, kings, and other rulers could no longer be gods in their own right, but could nevertheless rule by “divine right.”  Of course this also meant that God could, in theory, and according to the historical record apparently in practice, withdraw the divine favor of a particular ruler and bestow it upon another.  This is how you get changes of dynasties in medieval European feudalism.  Kingship in Christendom, as it turns out, has its ups and downs.

Jesus certainly knew about the ups and downs of kingship, as evidenced by the texts read today from the gospel according to St. John and from the Revelation to St. John.  On behalf of Dean Hill, allow me to remind us that these are not the same John!  In the passage from Revelation, we get the upside of the story.  Jesus is king of the kingdom of Christians, and in fact ruler of the kings of the earth, i.e. king of kings.  Here is not the historical Jesus but rather the cosmic figure of Christos Pantokrator, Christ who rides in out of eternity on the clouds in judgment of the tribes of the earth.  In the Gospel of John we get the downside.  It turns out that being a king is a significant part of what got Jesus killed at the hands of the rulers of his day.  The problem, it turns out, is that Jesus finds himself out of his kingdom, and he is not the king of the world in which he finds himself, but this has not stopped people from attributing kingship to him, making the rulers of the world highly anxious.  Let this be a lesson to you kings out there: if you are a king, stay put in your kingdom!

I would hazard to guess that many of you are feeling quite ambivalent about all of this talk of kingship only a few short weeks after we in the United States of America have participated in that hallmark of our democratic republic, namely electing our leaders to office.  Indeed, what could the notion of kingship possibly mean for us in the land that rebelled against King George III?  We noted earlier that kings are to be praised both for the benefits they bestow on their subjects and for their innate majesty and glory.  These notions are nonsensical amidst the logic of our democratic republic.  Surely, here in the USA we believe that people are personally responsible and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps so that they are not dependent on the beneficence of government.  And recently disclosed improprieties of a certain general turned spy-master only serve to remind us that our leaders all too frequently fail to achieve even the standards of basic morality, let alone ever being considerable in terms of glory and majesty.

Or do we?  Do we really believe in rugged individualism and the fallibility of our leaders, or in our heart of hearts do we aspire to something more like the kingship model?

Hanging out in stained glass toward the rear of Marsh Chapel on the pulpit side is the stentorian statesman Abraham Lincoln.  He made it into stained glass here because he fulfilled the abolitionist vision of the founders of Boston University through his work to abolish slavery.  The recently released feature-length film Lincoln chronicles his political machinations and negotiations eventually leading to the passage of the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude.  The Lincoln memorial in Washington, DC, dedicated in 1922, was designed by Henry Bacon in the form of a Greek Doric temple containing a large, seated sculpture of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French and inscriptions from Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses.  In some states, Lincoln’s birthday is celebrated as a holiday.  Or should I say holy day?

So, is Abraham Lincoln a king?  Applying a strict definition from political theory, certainly not.  The new film is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, entitled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  The title of the book makes it clear that Lincoln was not a king in the political sense, as it is his ability to get things done amidst competing interests, and despite the limits of presidential power, that makes Lincoln exceptional.  But in other respects Lincoln may best be interpreted as a king.  His rhetorical skill inspired hearts across divisions of race, gender, class, and religion.  His assassination made him a martyr and bestowed upon him mythical status in the United States and abroad.  Looking back across time, Lincoln may be understood as a king in the two senses outlined above.  He achieved great benefit for his people by virtue of his political skill, particularly for slaves, but for the United States as a whole also through his projects of reconstruction and vision for reintegration of the divided union.  And his soaring rhetoric and towering stature have been imprinted on the American imagination as signs of majesty and glory, as evidenced in stained glass, film, and monument.

There are other figures in U.S. history who might be considered under this rubric of kingship: George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is not the case that any of these men was perfect or otherwise unambiguous.  However, the particular focus afforded by the lenses of history has left us with visions of them that are truly praiseworthy.

I wonder if, political predilections for democratic order aside, there might not be something far deeper in the human condition and psyche that desires a king to rule over us.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there is, and that the “Te Deum” text points to this something deeper in the symbols of judgment, governing, and lordship.  Judgment is the measurement of the difference between the ideal of grace and the reality of sin.  Governance is the ordering of relations such that grace might be maximized and sin minimized.  Lordship is the power to make changes based on judgments and to bring about rightly ordered relationships.  Judicial, legislative, executive.  Far from the supposed American ideal that we do not need government because we are self-reliant and because governments are made up of other humans just as fallen as we ourselves, the “Te Deum” gives voice to that part of us that desires just what we proclaim to deny.

Peter Berger, University Professor Emeritus here at Boston University, wrote forty-some-odd years ago about religion as masochistic.  By this he means that in religious life we give ourselves over to something else, something greater, that can in some way effect an overarching meaning amidst a sea of seeming meaninglessness otherwise.  Indeed, that is at least one of the things that we do when we gather together on Sunday mornings.  We give ourselves over to God, who benefits us by providing us with a sense of meaning, order, and purpose, and who is majestic and glorious, and therefore praiseworthy.  This probably seems at least somewhat okay in relation to God.  Much more troubling for most of us is the fact that we essentially do the same thing with government.  We give ourselves over to a state that we believe can guarantee us some benefit and that seems to us in some way to be glorious and majestic.  This is the social contract.  In the case of monarchies, that glory and majesty is connected to the divine right of royalty.  In the democratic model, the glory and majesty of government derives from the glory and majesty of the human person, perhaps instilled by God.

The problem with a truly democratic government is that in order to fulfill our desire for kingship in terms of justice, governance, and lordship, 100% of the people must be 100% responsible 100% of the time.  In a monarchy, only one person must be 100% responsible 100% of the time, but if he or she screws it up, or at least if people find out that he or she screwed it up, it’s all over.  The problem is that there has never been a single human being, let alone a whole population of them, who has been able to be 100% responsible 100% of the time.  As the apostle to the gentiles tells us in the epistle to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Modern democratic republics have tried to mediate this problem by allowing for minimal levels of irresponsibility that can be counterbalanced by the checks and balances built into the governance model.  Sadly, as evidenced by the general turned spy-master mentioned earlier, we seem not to actually be able to tolerate the minimal levels of irresponsibility our system of government seeks to afford.  We aspire to more.  We aspire to perfection.  We seek a guarantee of order and meaning over against our uncertainty of each other and ourselves.

This past summer we heard a series of sermons on apocalyptic.  The apocalyptic worldview, that says that the guarantee of order and meaning is not possible in this world but is readily available in the next, is one Christian response to the problem of irresponsible government.  Another is the shift from the divinity of emperors themselves to their ruling rather by divine right, which could be taken away.  A third is the perspective that the image of God in human nature is obscured by sin, thus negating the possibility of fully effective human institutions.  In all cases, the Christian witness is that it is God who is our guarantee.  Ultimately, it is God who is our king, who judges us with perfect justice, governs us with perfect wisdom, and rules over us with perfect power, and so who is glorious and majestic.  No worldly power could possibly aspire to God’s perfection.  And so today, Christ the King Sunday, we give our sinful and broken selves over to God who alone can help us, can save us, can redeem us, can lift us up forever, and open the kingdom of heaven to us.


~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life

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