By Fr. Sean McDermott
Editor's Note: In this post, Fr. Sean McDermott continues a contemplation of the All Saints Icon which is at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. The first part of this series may be found here. This specific icon was written by Jonathan Edwards and installed in June of 2018. If you want to have the full text of the Te Deum in front of you, turn in the BCP to page 10, or view it here.
To continue our contemplation of the icon, I would like to consider the All Saints icon as a painted Te Deum, a hymn on a wooden board. The Te Deum follows what we have already considered—the first action of praise is to acknowledge God to be the Lord. "We praise the O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.” Having now accepted this reality, we move on to the other parts of the icon, which the Te Deum describes.
First, "To thee all Angels cry aloud; the Heavens and all the Powers therein; to thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry. . ." There are many Angels in the All Saints icon, covering the top third of the inner circle. With them the sun and the moon (the red and blue orbs underneath the Seraphim) also are shown praising their Creator. The Angels come in a variety of colors and vestures, signifying their many different orders and purposes. And they lead all of creation in a continual hymn of praise: “Holy Holy Holy Lord God of Sabaoth, Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory.” Not only does God sit enthroned upon all of creation, His presence fills the entire universe, signified by the stars, the sun and moon, and the orb of earth. It is His glory that sustains us all, and we join the Angels' hymn and contemplate His Majesty.
The Te Deum continues: "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." Indeed, within the icon’s circle, we find just this classification. The first row of humans on the left contains the prophets and kings, matched on the right with some of the Apostles, who are also continued below the prophets. Most of the Apostles were also martyrs, but there are several other martyrs included, such as St. Demetrius and St. Anastasia of Rome. It is an image of the whole church, summarized by these saints written here. In fact, you may notice that there are some figures in between the other saints that are hidden. You may see part of their halo or half of their face, but they are not named. This icon symbolizes the entire church, throughout all the world, even those brothers and sisters we may never know.
The icon also represents to us the past, present, and future of the Church. The entire history of the Bible is presented, from Father Abraham and the patriarch Jacob, to the kings David and Solomon. The prophets are joined with the Apostles and the saints of the Church from all times and places. Even the English saints are represented by St. Bede, St. George, and St. Columba! Altogether, however, the icon symbolizes the eschaton, the time in the future at which Christ restores all of Creation and rules over the new heavens and earth as king. All of time, all of history, therefore, is wrapped up into this one image. We enter into this eternal moment, learning how to join our praise with the praise of the prophets, saints, and angels.
The Te Deum continues by naming the subject of all our worship: "The Father of an infinite Majesty; thine adorable true and only Son; also the Holy Ghost the Comforter. " Our lives should join the praise of the Trinity, and the presence of this icon should help us in this mission. Every time we pass the icon, it is a moment of remembrance, a chance of recollection, an opportunity to worship the Trinity. If that is too abstract for some of us, the Te Deum reminds us of God's love for us. “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 humble thyself to be born of a virgin. 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.”
At the incarnation, the Son of the Father took on human flesh, healing the wounds of human nature, and thus providing a way for us to enter into His life, the life of the Holy Trinity. He did this by humbling Himself to be born of Mary, the Mother of God. She is written at his right hand, ever magnified by all generations and ever worshipping her Son. Jesus also had to suffer on the cross on our behalf. But what was once an object of torture and a symbol of cruelty is now magnified, presented by angels on a pillow at the top of the icon. The cross stands, still stretched out across the entire universe, beckoning people to enter the kingdom of God. The Te Deum acknowledges that our entrance into the kingdom is by his mercy. It continues in humility and teaches us to plead: "We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge. We therefore pray thee help thy servants, whom thou has redeemed with thy precious blood. Make them to be numbered with thy Saints, in glory everlasting. O Lord, save thy people and bless thine heritage. Govern them and lift them up for ever."
To conclude, the Te Deum once again summarizes the whole icon as a window into the worship of God: "Day by day we magnify thee; and we worship thy Name ever, world without end." As we end our contemplation of the icon, the hymn instructs us to do so with great humility and supplication.
We started the contemplation by acknowledging ourselves, but now that we have witnessed and seen the great Glory of God, the beauty of the history of salvation, and the great lineage of the Church, we need to come back to ourselves with a renewed sense of our place within the kingdom of God. We walk away with these lines of supplication, in hope that we grow in the mercy and love of God as we grow in the knowledge of Him. “Vouchsafe O Lord to keep us this day without sin. O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us. O Lord, let thy mercy be upon us, as our trust is in three. O Lord, in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded."
Contemplation of God's work of salvation for His creation moves us to humbly ask for His help; thus the icon helps us transform our entire lives. The purpose of an icon is not to make us feel better, but to lead us into greater union with Christ, expecting us to rid ourselves of bad habits and pursue virtue.
Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.