On Holy Thursday, as the altar is stripped and the Blessed Sacrament is moved out of the main church, “Pange lingua gloriosi, Corporis mysterium” echoes in the church. This hymn was composed by St. Thomas Aquinas, but it shares its first line and its triumphal tone with the earlier Hymn of Fortunatus. Aquinas’ hymn however, composed for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, is sung during the Liturgy of Holy Thursday, where we celebrate the institution of the Blessed Sacrament at the Last Supper.
The first stanza calls us to praise the Lord for the blessings he has given us in the Eucharist. The second stanza reminds us of the Savior’s origin and ministry that He fulfilled before His ultimate sacrifice on the cross, which we celebrate the next day, on Good Friday. The third stanza begins by setting the scene for the Institution of the Blessed Sacrament. It describes Christ sitting with His Apostles and ends with reverence for the gift of this Sacrament in which he offers himself to us by His own hand.
The next stanza marvels at the profound mystery of this sacrament:
Word made Flesh, the bread of nature
By His word to Flesh He turns;
Wine into His Blood He changes:
What though sense no change discerns?
Only be the heart in earnest,
Faith her lesson quickly learns.
This stanza is particularly appropriate to pray with the Church the evening before Christ suffers, since it appeals to the power of faith to get past appearances that may seem contradictory. Senses are not the only way to determine reality, and while they are central to our experience as human beings, faith in Christ’s word is the only real way to experience the power of God’s gift of grace.
The fifth stanza will sound familiar to anyone who has participated in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament: “Tantum ergo Sacramentum.” These are words of praise and wonder at the mysteries that the Lord has invited us to participate in on Earth. Again, it should provide the follower of Christ with a reason for hope. Through faith, we can trust Christ’s word even though His crucifixion the following day will present the ultimate test of trust. Like St. Peter, who swore to Jesus he would never deny Him, we find it unbelievably easy to trust Him when he is present. But this hymn reminds us on Holy Thursday, during the procession to the repository, that although Christ may appear to be absent, His Presence transcends the familiar to bring us to a deeper faith.
The final stanza “Genitori, Genitoque,” praises the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. It closes the hymn with trust in the God who, however mysterious, has also given us access to His grace. Singing this hymn on Holy Thursday allows us to praise Christ for the mystery of His Body and Blood with which He left us. Trusting in such a mystery is difficult and only possible through faith and hymns like this one can aid in our contemplation of it.