Te Deum – Dr Susan Gillingham

This sermon is part of a series of nine, all on the chapel décor, which have taken some four years to complete. My first was about the matins hymn, the ‘Benedicite’, which is set in the cornice above the windows. Seven others have been on the chapel windows. This final sermon focuses on the ‘Te Deum’, another morning canticle, which is sent in the dado below the friezes under the windows. It is well hidden: more of that shortly! But you have heard it sung so magnificently by our choir as the anthem just before this sermon. If you want to see its content, it can be found on page ten of our Prayer Books: you might turn to it to make sense of what follows.

But first, you might well ask, why two morning hymns at Evening Prayer? The answer is that, when the chapel was refurbished in the 1860s, attendance was compulsory every morning, so the architect, William Burgess, used the texts which would be most familiar to that nineteenth-century congregation.

Let us consider, as a preface to this sermon, the ‘Benedicite’. You should all be able to see some of it from where you sit. It’s mainly a call to all the natural order to praise God: ‘O all ye Green things upon the Earth, Bless Ye the Lord…. O all ye Fowls of the Air… O all ye Beasts and Cattle… O all Ye Seas and Floods, Bless Ye the Lord…’ and each of these is illustrated on the walls below, on each side of the stained glass window. The ‘Te Deum’, by contrast, is mainly a call to all humanity to praise God: ‘We praise thee O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord…’. Burgess, as architect, and Holiday and Wooldridge, as craftsmen who worked on the friezes and windows, viewed the entire chapel as an illustration of how nature and humankind unite together in praise of God. If you look around you should see how dominant this theme is.

The Te Deum dates somewhere between the second and fourth centuries AD and was used at a time when the Christian Church was expanding yet persecuted, and its overall theme is that the praise of God can counter the fear of men. Originally in Latin, it is often associated with Hilary of Poitiers or Ambrose of Milan, although it is not typical of their metrical hymnody; you’ll see even from your English edition that it’s really rhythmic prose. Only the first five verses, from the oldest part of the hymn, are on the dado, and these focus our praise on God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. [Praises to Christ as the Suffering Son of God form the second part, and the third and latest addition, from various psalms [27:9; 144:2; 122:3; 32;22; 30:2] form a different response, on the theme of mercy and forgiveness. The whole canticle has been set to music on countless occasions – in Gregorian chant, by Mozart, Bruckner, Berlioz, Dvorak, Haydn, and Britten. Sir William Walton set it for the Queen’s Coronation in 1952; and the Charpentier setting even made it into the Eurovision Song Contest! So although ancient, its theme of ‘the church praising God in every circumstance’ is what has kept it alive.]

Burgess made the ‘Benedicite’ clear to see and relatively easy to read, but the ‘Te Deum’ he deliberately hid from our sight and made almost impossible to read -unless one knows it already. [Starting at the north side, it somewhat hesitantly reads ‘We praise Thee, O God: we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord. All the earth doth worship Thee and the Father everlasting. To Thee all Angels, to Thee the heavens and all the Powers therein, To Thee the Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabbaoth.’] Burgess placed this Matins hymn behind the backs of the congregation; he also broke up almost every single word and combined it with half of another, making the effect seem like utter nonsense. Starting in front of the organ, the first word is ‘Wep’; the second is ‘raise’; almost every other ‘word’ is presented as something resembling Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jaberwockey’. Certainly the reader has to know the ‘Te Deum’ in order to make sense of it. The consequence was that Burgess could apply more of his characteristic ‘chapel humour’: the word ‘raise’ (taken from ‘praise’) is set behind the Vice-Provost’s stall, whilst at the other side, a rare but complete word, ‘God’, is set behind the Provost’s stall.

However, Burgess frequently used humour to bring out something serious. For example, the verse above the door as you go out reads ‘Let us enter his gates with thanksgiving’, reminding us that the church is an entrance to the world outside. Similarly Burgess intended the Te Deum to have a serious message, although it is clear that he asks us to search for it. He provided words for only the first five verses, but he also adapted the verses which followed them in artistic representation, in a manner which requires us to search for their hidden, more serious meaning

That representation is on the six friezes below the six windows: here Burgess has depicted in detail that vast and diverse ‘company of praise’ of which the ‘Te Deum’ speaks. First, the angels: ‘to thee all Angels cry aloud’: they are on the north side, near the altar – we have Uriel, Raphael (with his fish!), Gabriel (with a lily) and Michael (with his sword) and their ‘choir of eight’, singing ‘Holy Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabbaoth’. [The actual words are found in panels starting behind the altar and continue down to where the chaplain is sitting]. Second, the apostles: ‘the glorious company of the Apostles praise Thee’: these are on the middle frieze on the south side of the chapel- here you can see all twelve apostles illustrated together, with Peter with his key to the church, and Andrew with his cross. Third, the prophets: ‘the goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise Thee’: not only are there seven Old Testament prophets, each holding a scroll, above each of the seven windows – but also we find an eclectic group of twelve prophets matching the twelve apostles. They can be found on the frieze opposite the apostles, next to the angels: you might be able to see Enoch, then Noah, then Miriam singing and dancing, and David and Solomon – holding his Temple- and Huldah, Isaiah, Daniel, Malachi, John the Baptist and Anna. Fourth, we have the martyrs of the church – ‘the noble army of martyrs praise Thee:’ – and these are found next to the prophets, behind the choir stalls, forming another diverse group, including two angels with the Holy Innocents, Stephen, Polycarp, Aquinas of Canterbury, Catherine (with her wheel), Perpetua, Cecilia (with her pipes), Jan Huss, Jerome of Prague, and Latimer and Hooper (both Bishops of Worcester). Fifth, the ‘holy church throughout all the world’ Burgess divided into two groups, one of well-known saints and the other of layfolk representing all walks of life. The saints are behind the choir stalls on the north side: Augustine, Ambrose, Monica, Helena, Charlemagne (or King Olaf of Norway, in either case sporting the ginger beard of Daniel, a college fellow and soon to become Provost), Benedict, Catherine of Sienna, Elizabeth of Hungary, Wycliffe –with his Bible- and Luther and Pascal. The ordinary layfolk – including again a number of women- are on the south side, by the altar, where we see a bishop, a king, a doctor, a knight, a nun, a sister of mercy, a poet, a lawyer (with his red tape!), an artist, a carpenter, a farmer, a mother, and a fisherman. To bring his message home, Burgess took some artistic license by painting in the faces of people known in Oxford in his day.

So the ‘Te Deum’, in both words and pictures, moves from the praises of the heavenly host, to the praises of the apostles, prophets, martyrs and saints, to the praises of anyone and everyone – and this therefore includes those of us here in chapel tonight, for we are called upon too to join them in their paeon of praise. We have therefore both an appeal both to our intellect and imagination as we are invited to become part of that great community of faith, throughout the entire world and throughout the entire history of the church, a company giving praise to God in every place at every time and in every circumstance.

Most of those portrayed around us were part of a suffering church, but they knew that persecution and hardship are overwhelmed by praise. This was also the theme of our readings from Daniel and Revelation; each reading depicted how release from suffering comes when God’s saints move from lamenting their own condition to being lost in the praises of God. In Daniel, this was what the faithful Jewish community in Jerusalem had to learn, persecuted because they refused to bow the knee to the Greek Emperor and worship Greek idols. In Revelation, this was the faithful Christian community throughout Asia Minor had to learn, because they refused to bow the knee to the might of Rome and worship their gods. [We might ask, what is the corresponding challenge, in Oxford, today? ]

As our chaplain explained, this sermon is really part of another sermon series on the Beatitudes which has been running throughout this term. You might ask how these readings and these reflections on the ‘Te Deum’ have anything to do with the Beatitudes, not least our final one, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God’. To this I would reply: a commentary on this Beatitude is to be found in Daniel and Revelation, but it is also to be found all around you. It is found in the Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, Saints and indeed the whole church of God surround us, suffering communities and suffering individuals, persecuted for righteousness’ sake, yet ‘blessed’ in their suffering because they have learnt to transform their pain into an experience of God – Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

As for the Beatitudes, several preachers this term have commented on their ‘upside down’ appeal. Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading, observed how they ‘offer a topsy-turvy view of life’, which was not surprising in that they were spoken by Jesus, who turned the values of the world upside down and inside out. Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, also reflected on the way that the Beatitudes reversed the world’s values, and he said they were really about reality ‘the right way up’. Certainly this final Beatitude, which affirms blessings for those who suffer innocently, belongs to this same ‘topsy-turvy view of life’.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake’. Innocent suffering is something we all have to face at one time and another. Sometimes it is physical; at others, mental or emotional; often it is a profound spiritual pain, when we feel deprived of yet yearn for the presence of God. Innocent suffering is a real test as to how we live out our faith within a finite and often evil world. By far the most important comfort in our suffering is to realize that we are not alone. Suffering is the hallmark of the Christian faith, as you’ll see in the chapel window behind me, and it reminds us that the servants cannot expect less than their Master. So when it comes to pain and persecution, and indignation that this is undeserved, and our own ability to pray is very limited, and resources are scarce, let us seek another reality, an alternative vision, one which begins with the praises of the heavenly host, moves on to the praises of the prophets, apostles, martyrs and saints of the church, and ends with ourselves. It is as if we let these others pray and sing for us: we need to feel their presence, to hear their pain caught up in praise, and this is what this chapel allows us to do. This is how we can discover the secret of that ‘blessedness’ in suffering, the secret which all the Beatitudes seek to convey- an experience of God who enters into our pain yet also transcends it. So it begins with a prayer of lament at our human condition; but it ends with a hymn of praise to the God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Dr. Susan Gillingham, Fellow and Tutor in Theology
4th March 2007

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