Bishop's Pastoral
On All Saints' Day and the Te Deum
All Saints' Day A.D. MMXX (1 November 2020)

Te Deum
Te Deum in a psalter created in the mid-16th century for a canon of the Duomo of Milan.
Te gloriosus Apostolorum chorus,
Te Prophetarum laudabilis numerus,
Te Martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus.

You the glorious choir of Apostles,
You the laudable number of Prophets,
You the white-robed army of Martyrs laud.

A little past midnight of this All Saints’ Day, in trying to select an appropriate cover pic for the synod’s Facebook page, I seized upon the idea of posting a pic of the Te Deum, an ancient hymn of the church. I was confident that I could find an illuminated manuscript somewhere, but it wasn’t the idea of beautiful artwork that drew me to the Te Deum. It was the text, specifically the lines,

The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.

These lines (as translated in LBW, ELW, and BCP) seem appropriate to the day that is set aside for remembering the saints, particularly those saints who don’t get their own days.

I can hear the objection: “Aren’t we all saints? Isn’t All Saints’ Day about all of us being saints?”

All Saints’ Day was not always about “all of us being saints.” The Reformers continued to draw a distinction between the saints (you and me) and the saints (St. Paul, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Augustine, etc.). Apology XXI argued that these traditional saints were due a threefold honor:

Our confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we ought to give thanks to God because he has given examples of his mercy, because he has shown that he wants to save humankind, and because he has given teachers and other gifts to the church. Since these are the greatest gifts, they ought to be extolled very highly, and we ought to praise the saints themselves for faithfully using these gifts just as Christ praises faithful managers. The second kind of veneration is the strengthening of our faith. When we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we, too, are encouraged to believe that grace truly superabounds much more over sin. The third honor is imitation: first of their faith, then of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings. — Apology XXI (Kolb-Wengert)

So, while invocation was brought to an end in the churches of the German Reformation, the honoring of the saints was not. Indeed, the Reformers argued that they had restored the right and proper honoring of the saints. Yet the Reformers did not slide in the opposite direction of democratizing the whole affair such that no distinction was made between the traditional saints and the rest of us.

I’m not sure whether this democratization is solely an American thing, but it is most certainly a modern thing, and late-modern at that. Perhaps our inclination to say, “It’s All Saints’ Day, and we are all saints,” has its roots in a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed attempt to salvage the day. As immigrant Lutherans went through the process of Americanization, they started to lose some of their traditional church practices, practices that were viewed by their American Protestant neighbors as unpatriotically European and unevangelically Romish. There were even Lutheran pastors and lay leaders who sought to hasten the Americanization process, encouraging divestment of those things that kept Lutheranism on the fringes of Mainline American Protestantism. I can imagine pastors struggling to find a way to make the observance palatable to their neighbors and their own parishioners. I can also imagine pastors indulging their own anti-Catholicism, distorting the observance so that it might become a celebration of democratic American Protestantism.

There are three ways in which this day can go wrong. We can drop the day altogether and, in so doing, lose the example that the saints might offer us and the conscious benefit of their fellowship. We would also lose the right and proper threefold honor named in the Apology. We could retain the day in the perverse form that has become rather popular among us. In this, we also lose the day and those benefits already named. Lastly, we could lapse into fetishism with respect to the saints, forgetting the warnings contained in our Confessions with respect to the cult of saints. I think this unlikely. We are much too interested in idolizing those venerated for things other than a life of humble faith.

Let me suggest a still more excellent way: keep the day, render threefold honor to the saints (as understood in the Apology), and learn from the Te Deum the true focus of this day and, indeed, every day. I chose the Te Deum because the text makes mention of the apostles, prophets, and martyrs. The Te Deum, however, does more than merely name them. It puts them in right relationship with God. The English translation doesn’t quite convey the rhetorical force of the Latin text. Let’s look a closer look.

Te gloriosus Apostolorum chorus,
Te Prophetarum laudabilis numerus,
Te Martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus.

What do you see? You don’t need to know Latin in order to see it. What does every line begin with? “Te.” Even without knowing what the word means, you can see its relative importance in the structure of the lines. This is an anaphora, a rhetorical device in which each line or sentence beings with the same word or phrase. It gives extra umph to what is being said and highlights the point being made. Take for example one of the greatest uses of anaphora in modern times:

We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. — Winston Churchill.

Churchill's use of anaphora stresses the point that his nation shall fight wherever it is necessary, united in their shared determination and collective will.

The te-anaphora of the Te Deum does the same thing. It makes clear the focus of the hymn, “te.” “Te” is the accusative declension of the Latin word for “you.” In other words, it is the direct object of the sentence. It is that object to which the praise of the apostles, prophets, and martyrs is directed. Who exactly is this “you?” Well, it is not you, and it is not I. It is God, as is made clear in the first line of the Te Deum, “You, God.” So, this hymn is only tangentially about the apostles, prophets, and martyrs (and the cherubim, seraphim, etc., etc.). They are only important because they render praise to God. Perhaps a translation of the Latin that lays bare the anaphora will make the point clearer:

You the glorious choir of Apostles,
You the laudable number of Prophets,
You the white-robed army of Martyrs laud.

OK, that’s my translation of the Latin. It’s clunky and won’t sing well, but it does display the anaphora. Can there be any question as to the focus of the hymn? Indeed, examining the entire Te Deum, we find the author employing anaphora throughout, variously using, te, tu, and tibi. Thus, the focus is relentlessly upon God.

Why’s this important? Well, our focus seems so often to be on anything and everything that is not God. The problems with All Saints’ Day are but a symptom of the disease. If we follow after some of the less than salutary pieties of the Reformation era, we end up displacing God with the saints. If we democratize All Saints’ Day, we end up displacing God with ourselves. If we ignore All Saints’ Day altogether, we ignore something that God has done. Make no mistake: ignoring All Saints’ Day in avoidance of its associated pitfalls will not guarantee that we keep the focus on God. We have ample proof of our all too human ability to create “saints” in our own image rather than in the image of God. That point should not be lost. The true saints are conformed to the image of God because they are made saints by God. The false saints of own devising are expressions of our own all too mundane hopes, fears, wants, and vanities.

Consider: in two days, Americans will go to the polls. One candidate is Messiah; the other, Antichrist. Which is which appears to be a matter of personal predilection and stunningly absolute conviction. Our rhetoric betrays us. It’s religious if you really think about, and, as is the case with any man-made religion, we project upon these candidates our hopes, fears, wants, and vanities. If this seems a strange claim, go read Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism.

Keeping All Saints’ Day well may be an antidote to our own self-centeredness, hubris, and idolatry. To keep All Saints’ Day well is to keep the focus on God. It is to remember what God has done in the lives of the saints, preserving them in true faith in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword. It is to remember always that the saints point never to themselves but always to God.


Do we all holy rites.
Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum,
                    --- Henry V, Act 4, Scene 8

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