O sacred banquet!
Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, transferred from the usual Friday after Trinity Sunday. The texts for the Divine Office and the Mass for the feast were composed by St. Thomas Aquinas, and they show the poetical side of the man, not often on view. The Antiphon for the Magnificat of Second Vespers is in prose but might as well be poetry: “O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur, recolitur memoria passionis ejus, mens impletur gratia, et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur–"O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is recalled, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
The antiphon has been put to music many times. Here it is in Gregorian chant; here by Tallis; here by Messiaen; here by Ludovic da Vladana ; and the one I came to love in the seminary, by Roberto Remondi, here, here, and here.
As elsewhere in Aquinas's texts for this liturgy, there is profound theology in the antiphon, which he spelled out in his Summa theologica (III, q. 73, a. 4) in which he considered the question whether it was appropriate that the sacrament had more than one name. His crisp answer is Yes because believers have many names for the eucharist. And he explains:
This sacrament has a threefold sign-value. One is with regard to the past insofar as it commemorates the Lord's Passion, which was a true sacrifice... and this is why it is called the “sacrifice.” A second sign-value is with regard to the present reality of the Church’s unity to which people are gathered through this sacrament; and this is why it is called “communion” or “synaxis.” St. John Damascene says that “it is called ‘communion’ because through it we communicate with Christ, because we share in his flesh and godhead, and because through it we are united with one another. Its third value has to do with the future because it prefigures our enjoyment of God in our homeland, and this is why it is called “Viaticus” because it offers us the way to get there. In this respect it is also called “Eucharist,” that is, good grace because God’s grace is life eternal, and because it really contains Christ, who is full of grace. In Greek it is also called metalepsis, i.e., “assumption” because as Damascene says, through it we assume [take on] the Son’s Godhead.
The historians argue over whether St. Thomas also composed the much-loved Adoro te devote. Ann Olivier complained on another thread that we don’t ask enough of poets when it comes to translation. Here is what two poets did with this hymn.
First, the metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw:
With all the powers my poor heart hath
Of humble love and loyal faith,
Thus low (my hidden life!) I bow to Thee,
Whom too much love hath bow'd more low for me.
Down, down, proud Sense! discourses die!
Keep close, my soul's inquiring eye
Nor touch nor taste must look for more,
But each sit still in his own door.
Your ports are all superfluous here,
Save that which lets in Faith, the ear.
Faith is my skill; Faith can believe
As fast as Love new laws can give.
Faith is my force : Faith strength affords
To keep pace with those pow'rful words.
And words more sure, more sweet than they,
Love could not think, Truth could not say.
O let Thy wretch find that relief
Thou didst afford the faithful thief.
Plead for me, Love I allege and show
That Faith has farther here to go,
And less to lean on : because then
Though hid as God, wounds writ Thee man;
Thomas might touch, none but might see
At least the suffering side of Thee;
And that too was Thyself which Thee did cover,
But here ev'n that's hid too which hides the other.
Sweet, consider then, that I,
Though allowed nor hand nor eye,
To reach at Thy loved face; nor can
Taste Thee God, or touch Thee man,
Both yet believe, and witness Thee
My Lord too, and my God, as loud as he.
Help, Lord, my faith, my hope increase,
And fill my portion in Thy peace :
Give love for life; nor let my days
Grow, but in new powers to Thy name and praise.
O dear memorial of that Death
Which lives still, and allows us breath!
Rich, royal food! Bountiful bread
Whose use denies us to the dead;
Whose vital gust alone can give
The same leave both to eat and live.
Live ever, bread of loves, and be
My life, my soul, my surer self to me.
O soft, self -wounding Pelican!
Whose breast weeps balm for wounded man :
Ah, this way bend Thy benign flood
To a bleeding heart that gasps for blood.
That blood, whose least drops sovereign be
To wash my world of sins from me.
Come Love ! come Lord ! and that long day
For which I languish, come away.
When this dry soul those eyes shall see,
And drink the unseal'd source of Thee :
When Glory's sun Faith's shades shall chase,
And for Thy veil give me Thy face. Amen.
And here is Gerard Manley Hopkins’s version:
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.
On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.
I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.
O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.
Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran---
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.
Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory's sight. Amen.
About the Author
Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.