Panis angelicus - true and living bread?

Panis angelicus fit panis hominum;
Dat panis coelicus figuris terminum.
O res mirabilis! Manducat Dominum
Pauper, pauper, servus et humilis.

What do the words of this anthem mean? Something to do with angels, perhaps? Given César Franck's heavily romantic music you might well think so. In fact they are a celebration of the doctrine of Transubstantiation.

In St John's Gospel, Jesus says "unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life in you". This was not easy to understand, and some of his disciples replied "this is a hard saying; who can accept it". Ignatius of Antioch (probably a disciple of Peter and John) wrote in support of the concept in 106AD, as did Ambrose of Milan in 397AD. Early medieval philosophers (the Scholastics) in the twelfth century discussed how this might happen, and the term "transubstantiation" was coined. It was decided that the Eucharistic bread is not merely a symbol but really becomes Christ's flesh. The "accidents" of the bread (its shape, colour, texture and taste) remain the same, but its intangible "substance" (its real nature) changes. This was accepted as an official church dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and reconfirmed at the Council of Trent in 1545-63.

To celebrate this doctrine, Pope Urban IV established the feast of Corpus Christi ("the body of Christ") in 1264. He asked St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) to compose some hymns in honour of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and St Thomas wrote five; one of which is Sacris Solemniis ("our solemn feast"). The words of "Panis angelicus" form the sixth and penultimate stanza. They can be translated as follows:

The bread of angels becomes the bread of man;
This bread of heaven does away with symbols.
What a marvel! The poor, the servant and the humble
May feed on their Lord.

Many Protestant churches believe that the bread is only a symbol, a belief known as Commemoration. But some Protestant churches (especially the Lutherans) believe in Consubstantiation which holds that the body of Christ and the bread are both present in the consecrated Eucharist; this view is close to that of Transubstantiation.

Anglican Churches generally use the term "real presence", which covers a wide range of views between Transubstantiation and Commemoration. This typical "fudge" was adopted in the time of Elizabeth I following the sometimes violent arguments during her father's reign. Elizabeth's famous response to the question was:

Christ was the word that spake it.
He took the bread and brake it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.

The Orthodox Church, like the Catholic Church, teaches that the bread truly becomes the body of Christ but (perhaps wisely) they have refrained from philosophical speculation and simply refer to the Eucharist as a "mystery", whose full understanding is beyond human comprehension.

Mike Leuty

Hear the choir sing

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Choral Mass & Evensong at Cambrai - 8th August 2004
Panis angelicus - César Franck (1) OGG | MP3

Recorded at Cambrai cathedral, directed by Philip Collin
Peter Siepmann orgue de choeur
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 13th September 2003