St. Thomas Aquinas and Those ‘Old Time’ Eucharistic Hymns

St. Thomas Aquinas

 The focus on the Lord’s Supper during these weeks of Lent suggests the use of music based on some of the most ancient and venerable texts associated with the Communion liturgy.  One particularly rich source of these texts is the hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) written for a feast day specifically devoted to the Eucharist.

The feast is a Catholic observance known as the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ or, more traditionally, Corpus Christi–Latin for “the body of Christ.”  This feast day falls on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday because the first Eucharist was on Maundy Thursday, and the Thursday after Trinity is the first Thursday not during Easter Season (i, e., the first liturgically “open” Thursday).  Unlike most feast days, Corpus Christi does not commemorate a specific event in the life of Jesus, which is why Protestants don’t generally observe it; but its purpose was to celebrate and give thanks for the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.

Corpus Christi was established in 13th century by Pope Urban IV, who commissioned Thomas Aquinas to write a number of hymns to be a part of the Corpus Christi liturgy.  Aquinas was a Dominican monk, and his writings may be viewed through the lens of the re-discovery of the great Classical philosophers after the so-called “dark ages.”  His work gives expression to the relationship between the facts of everyday life and the teachings of the church.  In short, he tries to make sense of life without destroying its mystery, and without corrupting Christian teaching into secular philosophy.  Some of the hymns written by Thomas Aquinas for the feat of Corpus Christi include:

Lauda Sion salvatorem
(Hymn 320: Zion, praise your Savior, singing)

Tantum ergo sacramentum
(Hymn 330: Therefore we, before him bending)

Pange lingua corperis
(Hymn 329/331: Now, my tongue, the mystery telling)

O salutaris hostia
(Hymn 310/311: O saving Victim)

Adoro te devote
(Hymn 314: Humbly I adore thee)

 as well as Panis angelicus (Bread of angels), which is best-known as a very beautiful solo by the 19th-century Belgian  organist and composer Cesar Franck.

Edward Elgar, Michael Sitton

Because these texts are over 700 years old, generations of composers have had a chance to set them to music in many different styles.  The examples we have this week are a lush version of O salutaris hostia by the 19th-century composer Edward Elgar, and a lyrical unison Tantum ergo by the contemporary American composer (and North Carolina native) Michael Sitton. 

Tantum ergo sacramentum


So let us devoutly revere this great sacrament
and the old covenant may give way to the new rite.
May faith grant assistance to the deficiency of our senses.

To the Begetter and the Begotten let there be praise and jubilation,
salvation and honor, power and blessing;
and to Him that proceeds from the two let there be equal praise be. 

 Comments on the text: 

These are the final two stanzas of Aquinas’s hymn, Pange lingua corperis, which are sometimes used on thier own as a separate piece.

Old Covenant: Passover;
New Rite: Lord’s Supper

“The deficiency of our senses…”
see John 20:29, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Begetter: God the Father;
Begotten: God the Son

“Praise and jubilation, / salvation and honor, power and blessing…”
see Rev. 5:13, like the final chorus in Handel’s Messiah

“Him that proceeds…”
refers to the Holy Spirit.  See the Nicene Creed: “…who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified…”

O salutaris hostia


O saving victim
who opens the gate of heaven,
hostile wars press on us:
give strength, bring aid.

To the Lord, three in one,
be everlasting glory,
for life without end
he gives us in our homeland.


This text is also excerpted from a longer hymn, Verbum supernum prodiens. 

The incompatibility of the two words “saving” and “Victim” are not to be overlooked.  It is one of the great paradoxes of our faith, that Christ can be both “…Priest and Victim in the Eucharistic feast” (Hymn 460).   In fact, the Latin word for Victim–hostia–is the source of “host” as a term referring to sacramental bread.

The first stanza is quite a plea for help and it is worth noting that, even though the path to heaven is made open by the atoning sacrifice of Christ’s death, Aquinas has no expectation that sin and strife will magically stop in our lives.  If anything, the Eucharist is a visible reminder of our dependence on God, and a token of his promise to bring us at length “in our homeland.”

The second stanza of O salutaris hostia (like the second stanza of Tantum ergo) is a doxology–that is, an ascription of glory to the three Persons of the Trinity.


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