The Feast of Corpus Christi is soon upon us. It is the Solemnity of Our Lord's Body and Blood, marked by Eucharistic processions.
Saint Thomas Aquinas is credited with composing the Office and the Mass for Corpus Christi. In other words, he picked the psalms and prayers recited in the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office) and he selected the readings for Mass.
Aquinas personally wrote four Eucharistic hymns for the day — one for Holy Mass and three for the Divine Office. He also wrote an additional hymn about the Eucharist, not connected to the liturgical celebration, making a grand total of five Eucharistic hymns.
As Corpus Christi draws near, our viewers might find it fruitful to take a brief look at these hymns one by one. (All translations are my own.)
Adoro Te Devote
The hymn Adoro Te Devote was not part of the Mass or Office for Corpus Christi.
Perhaps my favorite line of this hymn is "Nil hoc verbo Veritatis verius" — "Nothing is truer than this, the word of Truth Himself." If we feel our faith in the Real Presence is waning, we need only consider this: Christ Himself said He would give us His Flesh and Blood, and He is Truth.
The hymn addresses Our Lord as "Pie Pellicane" — meaning something like "dear pelican" or "loving pelican."
This title comes from a tradition in the Middle Ages that the pelican feeds its young with its own blood, pricking itself with its beak so they may drink from the wound.
Medieval thought compared this tradition about pelicans with the way Our Lord feeds His faithful with His own Body and Blood.
That's why you sometimes see artwork in churches depicting a pelican in a nest, with a wound in its chest and surrounded by its offspring — it's a metaphor for what Christ does for us in the Eucharist.
The hymn Lauda Sion is the sequence for Corpus Christi. A sequence, in this context, is a hymn recited during Mass, before the gospel. In the Liturgy today, there are five feasts that have a sequence.
Let's start by looking at the first stanza:
Lauda Sion Salvatorem,
Lauda Ducem et Pastorem,
In hymnis et canticis.
Quantum potes, tantum aude:
Quia maior omni laude,
Nec laudare sufficis.
Praise, Zion, the Savior
Praise the Leader and Shepherd
In hymns and canticles.
As much as you can, strive,
For He's greater than all praise,
And you cannot do enough to praise Him.
In these lines, St. Thomas addresses the Church as Zion, exhorts the Church to give praise to God and notes that God is so great that we could never praise Him sufficiently.
It's an interesting idea, that God is beyond all praise, and that's precisely why we must praise Him.
Here's another part of the hymn worth discussing:
In figuris praesignatur,
Cum Isaac immolatur,
Agnus Paschae deputatur,
Datur manna patribus.
In figures it is presignified,
When Isaac is immolated,
The lamb of the Passover is dispatched,
Manna is given to the fathers.
These lines talk about three prefigurements of the Eucharist in the Old Testament. They are:
Catholic art often associates the Eucharist with those figures in the Old Testament.
Let's take as an example a stained-glass window found in the Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky.
The window rests above the tabernacle in a side chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. The left-hand side of the stained-glass window shows the manna coming down from Heaven.
The placement of the window near the tabernacle shows the connection: The manna in the desert was a foreshadowing of the Blessed Sacrament.
Aquinas' Pange Lingua comes from the Office of Corpus Christi. It is also used in Eucharistic processions, including the procession to the altar of repose on Holy Thursday. The final two stanzas (beginning "Tantum ergo Sacramentum") are used during Eucharistic adoration.
Keen observers at the Traditional Latin Mass might notice the opening of this hymn resembles a separate hymn chanted on Good Friday during the veneration of the Holy Cross. That hymn of the Cross was written by St. Venantius Fortunatus.
Saint Thomas' hymn opens, "Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium" — "Sing, my tongue, the mystery of the glorious body."
Compare that with the hymn sung on Good Friday: "Pange, lingua, gloriosi lauream certaminis" —"Sing, my tongue, the victory-laurel of the glorious struggle." (Earlier versions of the hymn read "proelium" ["battle"] instead of "lauream.")
Why the similarity?
Saint Thomas intentionally borrowed the phrase from his predecessor. This kind of thing is common in ancient and medieval poetry — borrowing phrases from previous poets and reworking them into one's own work.
It's worth noting how a hymn about the Eucharist borrows a phrase from a hymn about the Holy Cross. This seems to hint at the theological connection between Our Lord's Passion on the Cross and the Blessed Sacrament.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we Catholics know, commemorates the Passion and death of Christ. We also know that Christ, the One Who died on the Cross and rose on the third day, is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament.
The Angelic Doctor notes in the Summa Theologica, "The Eucharist is the perfect sacrament of Our Lord's Passion, as containing Christ crucified" (III, Q.73, A.5, Rep.2).
A particularly rich passage of Aquinas' Pange Lingua is the fourth stanza:
Verbum Caro, Panem verum
Verbo Carnem efficit:
Fitque Sanguis Christi merum,
Et si sensus deficit,
Ad firmandum cor sincerum
Sola fides sufficit.
The Word Made Flesh, by His word
Makes bread into the true Flesh:
And wine becomes Christ's Blood,
And if sense fails,
To strengthen the sincere heart
Faith alone suffices.
There's something mystical about these lines. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, is the Word Made Flesh, and, by the words of institution, He makes bread into His Flesh.
The hymn Sacris Solemniis is also from the Office of Corpus Christi. The last two stanzas often stand alone as the Panis Angelicus.
There are four lines in particular worth focusing on:
Fit Panis Hominum;
Dat Panis Caelicus
The Angelic Bread
Becomes the Bread of Men;
The Heavenly Bread gives
An end to prefigurements.
There are many things in the Old Testament that are interpreted as "prefigurements" of the Holy Eucharist, as discussed above in reference to the Lauda Sion.
Notice the reference to the Eucharist as "Angelic Bread" and "Heavenly Bread." When we worship the Body and Blood of Our Lord at Mass and receive Him in Holy Communion, it is like a little window into Heaven, a little foretaste of Paradise.
The Verbum Supernum is yet another hymn found in the Office of Corpus Christi. The final two stanzas are the "O Salutaris Hostia" used during Eucharistic adoration.
Let's take a look at the fourth stanza:
Se nascens dedit socium,
Convescens in Edulium,
Se moriens in pretium,
Se regnans dat in praemium.
Being born, He gave Himself as a companion,
Eating, as a Food,
Dying, as a payment,
Reigning, He gives Himself as a gift.
This is a beautiful summary of the mysteries of our redemption. In His birth, Christ showed how He came to dwell among us as a companion. At the Last Supper, He instituted the Eucharist, giving Himself to us as spiritual nourishment. In His death, He purchased our salvation. As He reigns now in Heaven, He continues to nourish us in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
When St. Thomas says Our Lord gave Himself in "payment" by dying, what he's saying is Christ purchased our redemption through His Passion and death on the Cross. This is clear in the Latin, but hard to express in English in so few words.
If you want to read the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas but are intimidated by the Summa Theologica, you might find these hymns easier to work with. For example, some may find it helpful to do mental prayer several days in a row with the same hymn, alternating between translations.
The ancient Roman poet Horace gave this advice about writing poetry: "Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci lectorem delectando pariterque monendo" — "He has taken every point, who has mixed the useful with the sweet by delighting the reader while also teaching him" (Ars Poetica, ll. 343–344). May the above prose accomplish what he advised for poetry. Perhaps you'll decide to use these hymns in your prayer life.