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To you, O Lord, I call;
my rock, do not refuse to hear me,
You know of course that all of these ancient beautiful prayers of the Church are named for the first words of the song, like the Gloria, Magnificat, Sanctus, Kyrie, Credo, Agnus Dei. Thus the Te Deum.
I took a year of Latin in college so I was fairly confident about my translation of one of the lines in the Te Deum, but I also knew that I’ve forgotten more than I ever knew, so I wanted to confirm my translation so I asked the staff. They didn’t know the answer to my question, but they had some good advice: “Go ask a student at Joseph Sears.”
I was so happy. They teach Latin at Sears! Maybe they do in the other New Trier middle schools too, but at least they do at Sears. And sure enough, I asked an eighth grader at Sears and she knew the answer to my question.
So in English the first two words of the Te Deum: “You, God.” Te: Second person pronoun in the accusative case. Deum: the accusative form of Deus, God.
A fairly accurate, twenty-first-century translation of the first line of the would be “Yo! God! We’re praising you down here. Pay attention!”
The Church has been praying this prayer since the fourth century, 1,600 years. It is so beloved that it is often sung at special occasions, like the canonization of a saint, or the consecration of a bishop, or the coronation of a monarch.
So 1,600 years the Christian Church has been singing this prayer. Many of history’s greatest composers have taken a shot at it:
Georg Frederick Handel
And, of course, Giacomo Puccini, who concludes the first act of Tosca with a rendition of the Te Deum, or part of it at least. In my last church in metro New York, one of my members was an opera aficionado.
This guy was evangelical about opera. He wanted to save your soul with opera. And so when I moved to New York an opera virgin, he wanted to change my life.
He was very generous to the Metropolitan Opera, and when you’re very generous to the Met, they reward you with rehearsal tickets, fistfuls of rehearsal tickets. Friday morning, 11:00, full dress, full orchestra, usually the singers are in full voice.
So he would give me these dress rehearsal tickets, and he wanted to save my soul with opera, so very early in my time there he gave me tickets to Tosca.
That was a very shrewd move, because the first act takes place in church, of course, and it ends with that stunning back and forth between Scarpia, the James Comey of eighteenth-century Rome, and the church choir, singing, Te Deum, not in Italian, of course, as the rest of Tosca, but in Latin. If you care, google “Puccini Te Deum.” I was converted to opera right then and there.
So which is the greatest opera: Parsifal, Don Carlo, or Tosca: A Wagner, a Verdi, and a Puccini: the Father, Son and Holy Ghost of the operatic stage. Discuss amongst yourselves at coffee hour.
So all these great maestri have taken a shot at the Te Deum prayer. Also, Wolfie Mozart and Rene Clausen, obviously.
And I want you to know how lucky you are be here this morning. We have Lisa Bond to thank for the genius of this worship experience. This is wonderful, and I want you to be experience this.
Together, these two compositions with almost the exact same ancient text give you a sense of the expansive range of the church’s expressions of praise across the ages.
Right now, in this moment, we are standing betwixt and between. In several different ways. We are standing between the eighteenth century and the twenty-first.
Mozart composed his Te Deum in 1769. Some of you will be doing the math as I speak and calculate that Wolfie was 13 years old when he composed this piece. What were you doing when you were 13?
Rene Clausen’s Te Deum is hot off the press, 2015, brand new.
So right now in this moment we are standing between the eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries.
We are standing between Austrian Christianity and American.
We are standing between the language of the Church and the language of the street, between the ecclesiastical tongue and the vernacular, our own vernacular.
We are standing between Rome and Wittenberg, between the Catholic and the Lutheran expressions of Christianity.
Mozart was Austrian, of course, and vividly, dramatically, eloquently Catholic. Rene Clausen was educated at St. Olaf College and now teaches at Concordia, both in Minnesota and both great ELCA schools. Oh, and by the way, Rene Clausen received his Master’s and Doctoral degrees at the University of Illinois, Urbana.
The Catholic and the Lutheran use almost exactly the same words, but it’s not surprising that they use the words in different ways and to different effect, across the ages and across the vocabularies.
In his Te Deum, Mozart is being faithful to his theological heritage. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church taught that you should never worship God with the language of the street. The vernacular languages–Italian, German, English–were too vulgar for divine worship. You should not pray in church with the same words you used to barter for fish at the market. Latin was God’s language; Latin was a sacred tongue.
The Catholic Church, you see, is better at mystery than the Protestant Church. All those smells and bells, those spooky Gothic cathedral, that magic moment when bread and wine miraculously morph into flesh and blood.
The Catholic Church wants to emphasize the unapproachability of God, the otherness of God, the distance between God and us.
That Latin text puts a scrim between us and the meaning, doesn’t it? We don’t coo to our babies in Latin. We have to strain to understand what the choristers are saying.
And that’s just as it should be, right? God is not your best bud. God is not to be owned, God is not to be had, God is not to be seen, God is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the great force that both fascinates and frightens us. Mozart does that for us.
But Martin Luther disagreed with that whole approach. Martin Luther wanted to take the words of the Bible and the language of the Church out of the ivory tower and put it down on the pavement where any little besmirched street urchin could get at it. And with his Te Deum, Rene Clausen is being faithful to his theological heritage, giving us a “Yo! God!” we can understand.
And both are true, right? The Catholic and the Lutheran expressions of Christianity?
And so it’s so wonderful for us to stand betwixt and between. Between God’s transcendence and God’s immanence, between the inscrutability of God and the familiarity of God. Both are true and both are good: God is as distant as the furthest star, and closer to us than breathing. God is unapproachable, and yet our constant companion.
And so with the Church throughout the ages, in the ancient, beloved words, we pray:
In te, Domini, speravi; non confundar in aeternam.
In you, Lord, have we hoped. Let me never be confounded.