One of the mainstays of the Prayer Book tradition are its canticles, the first of which is the Te Deum, appointed in Morning Prayer. Although it is sometimes (even often) substituted for other shorter canticles, it stands as one of the most majestic hymns in all of Christian history. Here’s a quick devotional examination of that canticle.
The Te Deum as we have it is a three-part hymn of praise. The first part focuses on the Trinity, drawing from texts such as the “holy, holy, holy” in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4, and language of the three Persons reminiscent of John 1:14, 5:20, and 14:26. Not only is the fullness of God described, but also the fullness of creation: angels, the powers of heaven, cherubim and seraphim, apostles, prophets, martyrs, the holy Church. Familiarity with the Te Deum will reward the worshiper at Holy Communion during the Sanctus, as the majestic language of this hymn echo in the mind of the worshiper during those brief moments in the Communion liturgy.
The second part of the Te Deum is a celebration of the Son of God: his incarnation, death, ascension, and promised return to be our judge. His atonement was to “set us free”, “open the kingdom of heaven to all believers,” and help us who were “bought with the price of your own blood” such that we can be brought “to glory everlasting.” The inclusion of the words “We believe” give this ancient hymn a creedal character to it, giving us an example of just how seamless the line can and should be between theology and worship, doctrine and doxology.
The third part of the Te Deum may not be as ancient as the first first two, and thus is rendered optional in this Prayer Book. The tone changes somewhat also, moving from praise to petition. Like the Suffrages that follow in the Daily Office, this final portion of the Te Deum is drawn from a series of Psalm references (28:10, 145:2, 123:4, 33:21, 31:1). Although these verses are from disparate sources, they are woven together seamlessly: each couplet leads to the next. “Now and always” is matched in “Day by day”, everlasting praise is matched with a request to be kept from all sin, the Kyrie is repeated (or in a way, clarified) with “show us your love and mercy”, and the placing of trust in God is matched with “In you, Lord is our hope.” This pattern of linking the end of a verse to the beginning of the next is also a feature of classical Prayer Book liturgy, where, particularly in the Communion prayers, paragraphs often repeat material used just before. Thus is formed a solid chain of continuity and purpose as the worshipers proceed through the worship service.