St Paul writes in I Corinthians 11, “For I received from the Lord what also I passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” The institution of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or Eucharist (from the Greek word for “giving thanks”) has been the central element of Christian worship from the days of the house church. People gathered to celebrate and partake of Christ’s gifts in bread and wine. So central was the celebration of the mass to the ecclesiastical authorities that many superstitious and harmful doctrines and practices developed around communion. The host—the bread—was given to the laity, then withdrawn, then given again. Veritable cults dedicated to the mysteries of communion and the host sprang up which the various Reformations sought to correct.
This hymn originates from the fourth century, was in Latin of course, and is possibly the oldest communion hymn.
As to the origin of this text, only a few things can be said and they all involve angels. One legend states that St Patrick and his nephew Sechnall, future Bishop of Ireland, heard this hymn being sung by angels during the offertory prior to communion, and decided right there and then to adopt it as a communion hymn. (The angels declined to sing the offertory here this morning.) Another legend states that St Patrick and Sechnall were having an argument in a graveyard. Upon their reconciliation, the angels were said to burst out in this spontaneous song. Regardless of how the angels decided to deliver this hymn, it reminds us Protestants that the mysteries of communion should not be taken lightly. “Draw near and take the body of the Lord, and drink the holy blood for you outpoured; offered was He for greatest and for least, Himself the victim and Himself the priest.” This is the holy mystery in which Paul warms the Corinthians not to partake unworthily, again in I Corinthians 10, “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.” The “worthiness” of which Paul speaks is not a sinlessness—Christ came to save sinners—but of an attitude of humility, contrition for one’s sins, and a recognizing of the power of communion, something Protestants traditionally have lost in a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The third stanza encourages us, “Come forward then with faithful hearts sincere, and take the pledges of salvation here. O Lord, our hearts with grateful thanks endow as in this feast of love You bless us now.” May God always grant us a right reception of His sacrament.
Benjamin Kolodziej, Organist