Most people think of St. Thomas Aquinas as a theologian, not as a poet. And rightly so, for while there are over 3000 articles in the Summa, there are only a handful of poems to his name. But what beautiful creations they are! There is not a traditional Catholic who has not memorized some part of his hymns, all of which treat of the Blessed Sacrament.
The part of his poems that is well known, however, is always their end. Few realize that what they are singing at Benediction is actually a few stanzas of a much larger composition. The Tantum Ergo is the conclusion of the Pange Lingua, the O Salutaris of the Verbum Supernum, the Panis Angelicus of Sacris Solemniis, and the Ecce Panis Angelorum of the Lauda Sion. The latter is the longest of these four great Eucharistic paeans and the sequence for the Mass of Corpus Christ. It is the subject of our article.
“Sequence” is the name given to the series of notes which originally followed on the last syllable of the Alleluia verse in the Mass.1 In the beginning, the sequence was purely musical, but later its notes were set to a text. At first the music was conjoined to a passage of prose, but liturgists later rewrote the text as poetry. Thus, over the course of the Middle Ages, an increasing textual sophistication in the liturgy kept pace with the remarkable developments taking place in music and architecture. It seems that writing sequences became hugely popular, as over 5000 of them have been uncovered by historical research.
The purpose of the sequence was twofold: the expression of praise and the teaching of doctrine. St. Thomas’s Lauda Sion accomplishes both of these ends wonderfully. The Catholic Encyclopedia remarks of it:
“Throughout the long poem the rhythmic flow is easy and natural, and, strange to say, especially so in the most didactic of the stanzas, despite a scrupulous theological accuracy in both thought and phrase. The saint ‘writes with the full panoply under his singing-robes’; but always the melody is perfect, the condensation of phrase is of crystalline clearness, the unction is abundant and, in the closing stanzas, of compelling sweetness.”
This sequence belongs to what is called their second epoch, when sequences had developed to such a degree in their artistic form—uniformity of rhythm, purity of rhyme, and strict regularity of structure—that they were scarcely distinguishable from hymns. At the same time, they still retained more freedom than the latter. Hymns have a single melody for each stanza or strophe, while sequences have a different melody for each pair of stanzas. In this way, two sides of the alternating choir sing each melody once.
This freedom shows, albeit in a small way, in the structure of the strophes in the Lauda Sion. In each of the strophes, the first verses all have eight syllables, while the last one has seven. Yet there are two exceptions. The following passage exhibits the normal pattern of 8-8-7 in the fifth stanza, and an irregular syllable count of 10-10-7 in the sixth one:
8 Sit laus plena, sit sonóra,
8 Sit jucúnda, sit decóra
7 Mentis jubilátio
10 Dies enim solémnis ágitur,
10 In qua mensæ prima recólitur
7 Hujus institútio.
Let the praise be loud and high:
Sweet and tranquil be the joy
Felt today in every breast.
On this festival divine
Which records the origin
Of the glorious Eucharist.
The avid reader is invited to hunt through the remaining 22 stanzas for the other irregular one!
St. Thomas’s Eucharistic poetry tends to focus on three themes:
the Eucharist as sacrifice replacing the sacrifices of the Old Law; the way in which Our Lord is present in the sacrament; the need for faith to believe in what the senses do not reveal.2 The Lauda Sion is no exception in this regard; the subject matter of its 24 strophes may be arranged as follows:
1- 6: An invitation to the praise of the Eucharist
7-10: The Eucharist as sacrifice of the New Law3
11-14: Our Lord is present sacramentally through transubstantiation
15: Our Lord is wholly present in each part of the species
16: Our Lord is received identically by all communicants
17-18: But with different effects: life for the good but death for the wicked
19-20: Dividing the species does not divide Our Lord
21-22: Recapitulation—Our Lord is the sacrifice and sacrament of the New Law
23-24: Closing prayer to Our Eucharistic Lord.
23-24: Closing prayer to Our Eucharistic Lord.
As the sequence is far too lengthy for the scope of this article, let us only consider in detail its most famous stanzas, the twenty-first and second:
8 Ecce panis Angelórum,
8 Factus cibus viatórum:
8 Vere panis fíliórum,
7 Non mittendus cánibus.
8 In figúris præsignátur,
8 Cum Isaac immolátur:
8 Agnus paschæ deputátur
7 Datur manna pátribus.
Behold the Bread of Angels,
For us pilgrims food, and token
Of the promise by Christ spoken,
Children’s meat, to dogs denied.
Shewn in Isaac’s dedication,
In the manna’s preparation:
In the Paschal immolation,
In old types pre-signified.
The alert reader will note that these strophes are longer than the ones previously quoted. St. Thomas, in fact, is following a happy practice of Adam of St. Victor, whose poems grew as they reached their end, as if the poet’s enthusiasm for the theme could no longer be limited to three lines per stanza. Thus, stanzas 19-22 have four verses, while 23-24 have five.
“Behold the Bread of Angels!” says St. Thomas, the same expression that he uses in the “Panis Angelicus,” and which comes from the 25th verse of Psalm 77, referring to manna. But how, we may ask, could the Eucharist be angelic food when the angels do not receive Holy Communion? We will let St. Thomas himself answer:
“The receiving of Christ under this sacrament is ordained to the enjoyment of heaven, as to its end, in the same way as the angels enjoy it.… Consequently, man is said to eat the “bread of angels,” because it belongs to the angels to do so firstly and principally, since they enjoy Him in His proper species; and secondly it belongs to men, who receive Christ under this sacrament” (III, q. 80, a. 2, ad 1).
Thus, the angels, as it were, partake of Christ in the Beatific Vision as their daily bread, and He becomes our daily bread in the Eucharist so that one day we may taste Him eternally in Heaven with the angels. Truly a thought to be put into song!
It might seem strange that St. Thomas advises that the Eucharist not be cast to dogs, but it is in fact an important point. Many theologians of his day held that Our Lord would withdraw His presence from the Host were it to touch the lips of a sinner, be consumed by an animal, fall into a sewer, etc. While the practical consequences of this position would be not to worry if the Host were defiled, it was the theological consequences that immediately concerned St. Thomas. It was important for him to maintain that Our Lord was present in the manner of a substance, a truth that was foundational for his entire treatise on the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation. To say that Our Lord comes and goes mystically, therefore, and not according to the laws of a substance, “detracts from the truth of the sacrament” (III, q. 80, a. 3, ad 3).
The following strophe presents to us three key Old Testament figures of the Blessed Sacrament. The first is Isaac, who was to be sacrificed by the command of the Father; the second is the manna, which nourished the Israelites in the desert; and the third is the paschal lamb, which was both immolated and eaten. Thus, St. Thomas gives us in the stanza images of the Eucharist as sacrifice (Isaac), the Eucharist as sacrament (manna), and the Eucharist as both (paschal lamb).
Suffice it to say that the rest of the sequence is as rich as these two stanzas. Studying the whole of the piece on one’s own along with the rest of St. Thomas’s Eucharistic hymns can only be a source of spiritual profit.
While St. Thomas’s theology masterfully ranged across the entire spectrum of supernatural truths, his song rested on one alone, the Holy Eucharist. Like a troubadour with his love, the Angelic Doctor reserved all of his verses for a single subject. It was, in fact, after completing his treatise on the Eucharist that Our Lord spoke to St. Thomas from a crucifix, saying, “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” To which he replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord.”
When St. Thomas was on his deathbed, a priest came to bring Holy Communion to him one last time. Before receiving Viaticum, St. Thomas made the following profession of faith:
“If in this world there be any knowledge of this sacrament stronger than that of faith, I wish now to use it in affirming that I firmly believe and know as certain that Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, is in this Sacrament....I receive Thee, the price of my redemption, for Whose love I have watched, studied, and labored. Thee have I preached; Thee have I taught.”
Indeed, St. Thomas, you preached Him, you taught Him, and yes, you sang of Him. What wonderful words of praise you have put on our lips to our Eucharistic Lord. As much as we can, so much will we endeavor with them to laud our King. Quantum potes, tantum aude.