There is a great hymn, an antiphon actually, written by St. Thomas Aquinas for the Office of Corpus Christi. It is O Sacrum Convivium and it serves as a wonderful summary of Eucharistic theology that is worth our attention. With that in mind I’d like to make a brief reflection on some of its compact teachings. First the text, then some commentary:
O sacrum convivium!
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius:
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 Pledge of future Glory is given to us.
O Sacred banquet (O Sacrum convivium) – In recent decades there was perhaps a tendency to over emphasize the meal aspect of the holy Mass, without due and balanced reference to the sacrificial aspect of the holy Mass. But the necessary correction in more recent times, back toward emphasizing that the Mass makes present the Sacrifice of the Cross, should not lead us to forget the mass is also a holy banquet, a sacred meal with the Lord.
For the Lord says, For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink (Jn 6:55). Thus, the Holy Eucharist is no mere sign, or symbol, but is in fact the true food of Christ’s true Body, true Blood, Soul and Divinity. The Eucharist, is also a foretaste, a praegustatum, of the great banquet in heaven, of which Christ says, And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Lk 22:29-30). And yet again, Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20).
Note too that the Latin word convivium, of which “banquet” is an adequate translation, but also contains nuances that go beyond a mere meal. The Latin emphasizes a kind of coming together a sort of celebration of life. Con (with) + vivere (to live). Hence, the meal here is no mere supplying the food or calories. It is a coming together to celebrate new life. We receive the food of Christ’s Body and Blood, which not only gives an ingredient for life, but is in fact the true and very life of Christ.
In the Eucharist, we receive Life Himself, for Christ said of himself, I am the life (Jn 14:6). And further, he declares, As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will have life because of me. (Jn 6:57).
Of this life, he further describes it as “eternal life,” a term which refers not merely to the length of life, but also to the fullness of life.
Thus the Holy Eucharist is a meal, but no mere meal, it is Life, it is a convivial celebration of that life; it is a banquet which gives Life Himself.
In which Christ is received (in quo Christus sumitur)– Here again, is affirmation that we do not receive mere food, we receive Christ himself. This is no mere symbol, no mere wafer, no mere memory. It is Christ himself that we receive.
The verb here, sumitur, is in some sense bold. More literally translated than “received,” it is more literally translated as “taken up.” It is a present passive indicative form of the verb. And this indicates the great humility of our Lord. He lets himself “be taken up.”
Imagine, the Lord being in a moment of a passive relationship with us. He lets himself be taken up, or taken in by us. He is taken up, and becomes our food. Here is an astonishing humbling by our God, who then allows himself to be assimilated by us, and thereby assimilates us into him.
His humility, is meant to conquer pride in us. Yes, in this great banquet Christ himself is taken up, is received, is assimilated by us. And in this humble manner we are taken up into him, taken in, more perfectly to be a member of his body.
The memory of his passion is recalled (recolitur memoria passionis eius) – The Eucharist is not only a meal, it is the making present of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In every mass, we are brought to the foot of the cross, and the fruits of that Cross are applied to us.
We are also at the resurrection, for in Holy Communion we receive Christ who is living, present, and active.
The Latin verb recolitur, is properly translated “recalled.” However, once again there are nuances in the Latin verb which are hard to render with one English word. The Latin verb recolere means “to cultivate anew.” This somewhat agrarian image points to a kind of careful and intentional growing and fostering of something, in this case the memory of Christ’s Passion.
To cultivate in agriculture, is also to prepare for, and or pave the way for the growth of something. It means to prepare the soil.
In non agrarian settings, to cultivate anything implies a kind of care for it, and intention to foster the growth of something, to further or encourage something.
In all these images we see that the memory of Christ’s Passion is something that we should cherish, encourage and foster. It is something in which we should prepare the ground of our heart for ever deeper insights and for new growth in the memory of what He’s done for us
The other word, “memory,” is also a very precious word. What is memory and what does it mean to “remember?” To remember is to have deeply present in my mind and my heart what Christ has done for me, so that I am grateful, and I am different. It means to have it finally dawn on us what Christ has done for us in such a vivid and real way that our hearts and minds are grateful, transformed, and different. Our hearts of stone are broken open and God’s light and love flood in and we are changed. This is what it means to remember.
It is of course and ever deepening process to recall the memory of His Passion, not a mere one time event.
The Mind is filled with Grace (mens impletur gratia) – There are many graces of course that come with holy Communion:
Our venial sins are forgiven, our holiness is increased, our union with Christ becomes more perfected, we gradually become the One we receive, we receive strength and food for the journey across the desert of this world unto the Promised Land of Heaven, we receive life, and begin to participate in eternal life, our union with Christ and membership in his body is strengthened, as is our union with one another, and our union with the saints in heaven.
Yes, so many grace are infused, are poured forth into the mind and heart!
And a pledge of future glory is given to us (et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur) – with the reception of Holy Communion come promises from Christ:
But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever….Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day….Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:50-58)
Yes, here is a pledge of future glory, of victory. Jesus alludes to the manna in the wilderness that sustained them for forty years in the desert. It was a sign of the victory to come. For why would God sustain them in the desert if he did not will to lead them ultimately to the Promised Land? It is the same for us. That God feeds us in this way is a sign and promise of his will to save us and bring us to the Promised Land of Heaven. He blesses and strengthens the journey and so adds surety and the pledge of the destination of future glory.
To this pledge the Lord also adds a warning: I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53)
And St. Paul also adds: Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:27-29)
Not a bad little summary of Eucharistic theology, all in a short antiphon.