Now Thank We All Our God

Now Thank We All Our God April 20, 2013

In the Boston suburb of Watertown, law-enforcement officers have killed marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and captured Dzokhar, his fellow suspect and younger brother. Following a carjacking, a “rolling gun battle” (as the Yahoo! News puts it) that left an MIT police officer dead and a transit officer wounded, and a house-by-house search of a 20-block area, this is a coup of peacekeeping. Bostonians, who saw three of their number killed and another 176 wounded, are celebrating.

So what about the public at large? Do we get to join in? For anyone who insists, there is a distinctly Christian way to do it. In the old days, when they could get away with it, rulers ordered Te Deums sung to mark their military victories. Normally reserved for the close of Matins on days when the Gloria is said at Mass, the hymn of praise takes its title from its own first line — “Te Deum laudamus,” or “We praise thee, O God.” It continues:

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 honourable, 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.

No overbearing national pride, no smugness, here. All glory and gratitude goes to God with no speculation on how He chooses His victors. Still, in combining piety and patriotism so cozily, there’s always the danger of creating a God in the nation’s own image, or the ruler’s. Arthur Sullivan composed a Te Deum to mark Britain’s victory in the Second Boer War, which it achieved only after isolating the Afrikaans-speaking population in concentration camps. It’s horrible to imagine a God who would approve that kind of treatment for anyone, even scruffy-looking Calvinists.

But the history of early-modern warfare does report a gesture of thanksgiving that seems more spontaneous and less tainted by partisanship. In December of 1757, after routing the French at Rossbach, in Saxony, Frederick the Great marched his army into Leuthen, in Silesia, a great distance in those days. With a surprise flanking attack, he led it to victory over an Austrian army nearly twice its size. According to tradition, after the battle, a Prussian infantryman began singing the hymn “Nun danket Alle Gott,” or “Now Thank We All Our God.” The rest of the army picked it up, transforming the march into one big praise and worship service.

You could spend hours unpacking the beauty of this gesture. For one thing, 18th-century infantrymen were not especially known for their piety. Frederick himself thought so little of their moral fiber as to recommend they be treated “like spaniels,” that is, beaten into abject servility. Because of Prussia’s small population, he was obliged to recruit soldiers from abroad, often pressing into service enemy troops who surrendered or deserted. The hymn was originally composed by Martin Rinkart, in Saxony; Frederick had overrun Saxony the previous year. It’s entirely possible the singing Landser came from there himself, and had no stake in Frederick’s dynastic ambitions. His thanks, in that case, would have been the thanks of a half-frozen, stressed-out, footsore peon who, despite the misery of his existence, was overjoyed to see it prolonged.

If this was true, he choose his hymns well. Rinkart composed “Nun danket alle Gott” under the direst existential threat imaginable — while serving as a pastor to refugees in the walled town of Eilenburg during the Thirty Years’ War. In the year 1637, he presided at 4,000 funerals, including his wife’s. If he said he felt thankful, who could argue?

Those of us who don’t live in Boston, and who don’t have any friends or relatives there, might have a weak case for celebrating the end of the Tsarnaev threat in quite the same spirit. But mass killings have become depressingly common. Sometimes the killers claim a political motive; sometimes they’re crazy in a non-ideological way. It’s impossible for any of us, no matter where we live, to feel completely out of harm’s way. Therefore, in a spirit of empathy for the people of Boston, and with sincere gratitude for our own hides, believers would do no harm to pause a minute or two and sing along — to follow the bouncing cannonball, so to speak.

Some of my readers will be smart enough to know the words in the original Hun. For everyone else, including me, here they are in English:

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

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