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Corpus Christi

Preliminary Observations

The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal

The next five hymns are the great Eucharistic hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274). They were written at the request of Pope Urban IV, on the occasion of the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. The hymns of the Angelic Doctor are remarkable for their smoothness and clearness, and for their logical conciseness and dogmatic precision. They are pervaded throughout by a spirit of the profoundest piety so characteristic of the Angel of the Schools. It is fitting that a great Doctor of the Church and a great Saint should have confined his hymn-writing to a single subject, and that, the sweetest and profoundest of all subjects, the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

The hymns taken collectively contain an admirable summary of the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. “The Lauda Sion,” says Archbishop Bagshawe, is in itself “a condensed compendium of exact theology” (Breviary Hymns and Missal Sequences, Preface). Several of the clear-cut, doctrinal statements that are found in the Lauda Sion occur again and again in the other hymns. To obviate repetitions in the Notes, and to afford additional aids to the proper understanding of the hymns, the following doctrinal statements from authoritative sources may be found useful:

  1. “It has always been believed in the Church of God that immediately after the consecration, the true Body of Our Lord and His true Blood exist under the species of bread and wine, together with His Soul and Divinity: the Body under the species of bread, and the Blood under the species of wine, by force of the words; but the Body under the species of wine, and the Blood uner the species of bread, and the Soul under both by force of the natural connection and concomitance by which the parts of the Lord Christ, who rose from the dead to die no more, are linked together: and the Divinity by reason of Its admirable Hypostatic Union with the Body and Soul. Wherefore it is most true that there is as much contained under either species as under both, for Christ exists whole and entire under the species of bread, and under every part of the species, whole too and entire under the species of wine and under its parts” (Council of Trent, Sess. 13, Ch. 3. Quoted from the Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, by Father Hunter, S.J. Vol. 3, p. 258).
  2. The following is from the Profession of Faith of Pope Pius IV, which was drawn up shortly after the conclusion of the Council of Trent: “I profess ... that in the most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, there is truly, really, and substantially, the Body and Blood, together with the Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that there is made a conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into Blood; which conversion the Catholic Church calls Transubstantiation. I also confess, that under either kind alone, Christ is received whole and entire, and a true Sacrament” (From Father Devine’s The Creed Explained, p. 55).
  3. “Since the species of bread and wine are not the proper, but only the assumed species of the Body and Blood of Christ, what is done to the species cannot therefore be said to be done to the Body and Blood of Christ itself. If, for instance, the former are divided or broken, the Body of Christ is not thereby divided or broken. But as the Body of Christ exists permanently under the species, and is really present wherever the species are, it is actually borne from place to place, as are the species. We may rightly say, however, that the Sacrament is broken (fracto demum sacramento); for the species are an essential part of the Sacrament” (Father Wilmer’s Handbook of the Christian Religion, p. 334).
  4. “Every day the Eucharistic mysteries place Our Lord in a state analogous to that which He took upon Himself in the Incarnation. The Eucharistic species subsist independently of their proper substance, as the human nature of the Word Incarnate subsisted independently of His natural personality. ... Not without reason does the Church, in her offices and Eucharistic hymns, constantly bring these two mysteries together, the Incarnation and Transubstantiation” (From The Eucharistic Life of Christ, is Father Matthew Russell’s Jesus Is Waiting, p. 87). The following paragraph expresses briefly and authoritatively the teaching of the Church concerning the Incarnation and the Person of Christ.
  5. “But it is also necessary for eternal salvation, that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now the right faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and man. He is God of the substance of His Father, begotten before the world; and He is man of the substance of His Mother, born in the world. Perfect God and perfect man; of rational soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father according to His Divinity; less than the Father according to His humanity. Who, although He is both God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ. One, not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the assuming of human nature unto God. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and the body constitutes one man, so God and man is one Christ” (From the Creed of St. Athanasius). Such was the Christ who was born for us at Bethlehem; the Good Shepherd who sought out the lost sheep of the house of Israel; the great High Priest who gave Himself to His disciples with His own hands at the Last Supper; and who as Priest and Victim offered Himself on Calvary, and daily offers Himself on countless altars from the rising till the setting of the sun.
  6. “Christ is entirely present under each species and under each particle of either species. Christ is entirely present—with His flesh and blood, His body and soul, His manhood and Godhead under each species. Christ gave His disciples the same body that He possessed, and on our altars bread is changed into the same body which is now glorified in heaven; for the words: This is My Body, would not be true, unless the bread were changed into the living body of Christ as it now exists. So, too, the wine is changed into the blood of the living Christ. But where the body of the living Christ is there is also His blood, and His soul, and divinity—the entire Christ.” “Christ is wholly present in each particle of either species so that he who receives one particle of the host receives the whole Christ” (Wilmer’s Handbook, p. 334).
  7. The parallel passages in the Scriptures referring directly to the Institution of the Holy Eucharist are the following: St. Matt. 26, 26-28; St. Mark 14, 22-24; St. Luke 22, 19-20; St. Paul I Cor. 11, 23-25. The following is from St. Luke: “And taking bread, he gave thanks, and broke, and gave to them, saying: This is my body which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me. In like manner the chalice also, after he had supped, saying: This is the chalice, the new testament in my blood, which shall be shed for you.” See also the words of promise (St. John 6, 48-59) which were uttered by Our Lord about one year before the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
  8. Types: By types, in the Scriptures, are meant such persons and things in the Old Law as prefigured persons and things in the New. The Old Law itself and the various sacrifices it prescribed were but the types or shadows, not the reality, of future good things promised (cf. Heb. 10, 1-19). The principal types mentioned in the hymns are:
    1. The Paschal Lamb (Exod. 12). The Paschal Lamb is the most expressive type or figure of Christ mentioned in the Old Testament. It was slain the day before the Passover; it was to be without blemish; it was to be offered to God and then eaten; not a bone of it was to be broken; its blood sprinkled on the door-posts on the Israelites preserved them from temporal death, as Christ’s Blood shed on the Cross preserves us from eternal death. It might also be noted that a lamb is remarkable for its gentleness; it submits to unmerited suffering without complaint (Is. 53, 7; Acts 8, 32); in the Old Law it was slain for sins not its own; Christ is the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world (cf. John 1, 29-36); He is the Lamb which was slain from the beginning of the world (Apoc. 13, 8), i.e., in the foreknowledge of God.
    2. Manna: (Exod. 16). Manna was the miraculous bread of the Israelites during their forty years’ sojourn in the desert; it came down from heaven every morning, and it was consumed in the morning; it was small and white; and such was its nature that “neither had he more that had gathered more, nor did he find less that had provided less” (Exod. 16, 18).
    3. Isaac (Gen. 22). Isaac was a type of Christ in that he was the well beloved and only-begotten son of his father Abraham; He carried on his shoulders the wood on which he was to be sacrificed; he was an obedient and willing victim; his life, as recorded in Gen. 15-35, pictures him as pre-eminently a man of peace, whose willing sacrifice on Mount Moria was typical of the greater Sacrifice on Mount Calvary.
    4. Azymes (Exod. 12-13). The azyme-bread was unleavened bread prescribed by the Mosaic Law for the Feast of the Passover. There was also a Feast of the Azymes (of the Unleavened Bread) which continued for seven days. The Azymes and Passover were practically one and the same feast. Unleavened bread is a type of sincerity, truth, moral integrity, exemption from the corrupting leaven of sin, etc. (cf. I Cor. 5, 8).
  9. In the Cath. Encycl., read the following articles: Corpus Christi, Eucharist; Pasch; Supper, Last; Azymes; Lamb, Paschal; Manna; Isaac; Types in Scripture; and the beginning of each of the two articles on Host.

    The same work contains seven articles on the hymns of St. Thomas. These articles, listed under the following titles, are from the pen of the eminent hymnologist, the Rt. Rev. Monsignor H. T. Henry, Litt. D.: Lauda Sion, Adora Te Devote, Sacris Solemniis, Pange Lingua, Tantum Ergo, Verbum Supernum, and O Salutaris. Monsignor Henry’s Eucharistica contains translations of all these hymns and devotes to them more than thirty pages of comment.