Reflections on Eucharist in Light of "Adoro Te Devote" (Part 1)

1st Advent Sermon of Pontifical Household Preacher

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 3, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the first Advent sermon, delivered this morning, before the Pope and his aides in the Roman Curia, by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

With this sermon, Father Cantalamessa began, in the Apostolic Palace’s Redemptoris Mater chapel, a series of Eucharistic reflections in the light of the hymn Adoro Te Devote. Part 2 appears Sunday.

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First Sermon
Adoro te devote

To respond to the Holy Father’s desire and intentions to dedicate this year to the Eucharist, the preaching for this Advent — and, God willing also for next Lent, will be a stanza-by-stanza commentary of the Adoro Te Devote.

With his encyclical «Ecclesia de Eucharistia,» the Holy Father John Paul II said he intended to reawaken «Eucharistic wonder» in the Church,[1] and the Adoro Te Devote lends itself wonderfully to achieve this objective. It might serve to give spiritual inspiration and heart to all that will be done during this year to honor the Eucharist.

A certain way of speaking of the Eucharist, full of warm unction and devotion as well as of profound doctrine, banished by the advent of so-called scientific theology, was preserved in old Eucharistic hymns and it is here that we must look for it today, if we wish to overcome a certain arid conceptualism that has afflicted the Sacrament of the Altar in the wake of so many disputes surrounding it.

Ours, however, will not be a reflection on the Adoro Te Devote, but on the Eucharist! The hymn is only the map that helps us to explore the territory, the guide that introduces us to the work of art.

1. A hidden presence

In this meditation we reflect on the first stanza of the hymn. It says:

Adóro te devóte, latens Déitas,
quae sub his figúris vere látitas:
tibi se cor meum totum súbicit,
quia te contémplans totum déficit.

O Godhead hid, devoutly I adore Thee,
Who truly art within the forms before me;
To Thee my heart I bow with bended knee,
As failing quite in contemplating Thee.

Attempts were made to establish the critical text of the hymn based on a few manuscripts in existence before printing. The variations we know in regard to the text are not many. The main one, in fact, has to do with the first two verses of this stanza that, according to Wilmart, in the beginning sounded like this: «Adoro devote latens veritas / Te qui sub his formis vere latitas,» where «veritas» stood for the person of Christ and «formis» was the equivalent of «figuris.»

But aside from the fact that this reading is anything but certain,[2] there is another reason that impels us to keep to the traditional text. This, like other venerated Latin liturgical hymns of the past, belongs to the community of the faithful that have sung it for centuries, have made it their own and almost recreated it, no less than to the author who composed it, often, however, remaining anonymous. The popular text is no less valuable than the critical text and it is with it, in fact, that the hymn continues to be known and sung in the whole Church.

In every stanza of the Adoro Te Devote there is a theological affirmation and an invocation which is the prayerful response of the soul to the mystery. The theological truth recalled in the first stanza refers to the manner of the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species. The Latin expression «vere latitas» is charged with meaning, it means: he is hidden, but he really is (where the accent is on «vere,» only the reality of the presence) and it also means: he truly is, but hidden (where the accent is on «latitas,» on the sacramental character of this presence).

To understand this way of speaking of the Eucharist it is necessary to keep in mind the «great change» that is verified regarding the Eucharist in the passage of the symbolic theology of the Fathers and the dialectic of Scholasticism.

It had its remote beginnings in the ninth century, with Pascasio Radberto and Ratramno of Corbie: the first defender of the physical and material presence of Christ in the bread and wine; the second defender of a true and real but sacramental presence, not physical; it bursts forth openly, however, only later, with Berengarius of Tours (H 1088) who accentuates to such a point the symbolic and sacramental character of Christ in the Eucharist as to jeopardize faith in the objective reality of such a presence.

While at first it was said that Christ is present sacramentally in the Eucharist, or according to those in the East, mysteriously, now, with a language borrowed from Aristotle, it is said that he is present substantially, or according to substance. «Figura» no longer indicates, as sacramentum, the ensemble of signs with which the presence of Christ is realized, but simply the «species or appearances» of bread and wine, in technical language, the accidents.[3]

Our hymn is placed clearly on this side of the change, even if it avoids recourse to new philosophical terms, not very appropriate in a poetic text. In the verse «quae sub his figuris vere latitas,» the term «figura» indicates the species of bread and wine in as much as they conceal what they contain and contain what they conceal.[4]

2. In devout adoration

I mentioned that in every stanza of the hymn we find a theological affirmation followed by an invocation with which the one praying responds to it and appropriates the truth evoked. To the affirmation of the real presence, even if hidden, of Christ in the bread and wine the one praying responds melting literally in devout adoration and bringing with him, in the same movement, the innumerable souls that for more than half a millennium have prayed with his words.

«Adoro»: this word with which the hymn opens is on its own a profession of faith in the identity between the Eucharistic body and the historical body of Christ, «born of the Virgin Mary, and who really suffered and was immolated on the cross for man.» It is only thanks to this identity, in fact, and to the hypostatic union in Christ between his humanity and divinity, that we can be in adoration before the consecrated Host, without committing the sin of idolatry. St. Augustine already said: «In this flesh (the Lord) has walked here and this same flesh he has given us to eat for salvation; and no one eats that flesh without first having adored it. … We do not sin by adoring it, but rather we sin if we do not adore it.» [5]

But, in what exactly does adoration consist of and how is it manifested? Adoration may be prepared by long reflection, but it ends with an intuition and, as every intuition, it does not last long. It is like a flash of light in the night. But of a special light: not so much the light of truth, but the light of reality. It is the perception of the grandeur, majesty and beauty of God, together with his goodness and presence which takes one’s breath away. It is a sort of sinking in the shoreless and fathomless ocean of God’s majesty.

An expression of adoration, more effective than any word, is silence. To adore, according to the wonderful expression of St. Gregory Nazianzen, means to raise a «hymn of silence» to God. There was a time when, to enter into a climate of adoration before the Most Blessed Sacrament, it was enough for me to repeat the first words of a hymn of the 17th century German mystic Gerhard Tersteegen, still sung today in Protestant and Catholic churches of Germany:

«God is present here; come let us adore him!
With holy reverence, let us enter into his presence.
God is here in our midst: everything is silenced in us
And our innermost being prostrates itself in his presence.»[6]

Perhaps because the words of a foreign language are less worn-out by usage and trivialization, it is a fact that those words gave me, every time, an inner thrill. «Gott ist gegenwärtig, God is present, God is here!» — the words so
on vanished, only the truth remained that they had transmitted, the «vivid feeling of the presence» of God.

The meaning of adoration is reinforced, in our hymn, by that of devotion: «adoro te devote.» The Middle Ages gave this term a new meaning in relation to pagan and also Christian antiquity. With it was indicated at the beginning the attachment of a person, expressed in faithful service and, in Christian usage, every form of divine service, especially the liturgical service of the recitation of the psalms and prayers.

In the great spiritual authors of the Middle Ages, the word is interiorized, no longer signifying exterior practices, but the profound dispositions of the heart. For St. Bernard it indicates «the interior fervor of the soul burning with the fire of charity.»[7] With St. Bonaventure and his school the person of Christ becomes the central object of devotion, understood as the feeling of overwhelming gratitude and love aroused by the memory of his benefits. The Angelic Doctor dedicates two whole articles of the Summa to devotion, which he considers the first and most important act of the virtue of religion.[8] For him it consists of the readiness and disposition of the will to offer itself to God which is expressed in a service without reservations and full of fervor.

This rich and profound content was unfortunately lost to a great extent later on, when the concept of «devotion» was placed alongside that of «devotions,» namely of exterior and special practices, addressed not only to God, but more often to saints or to particular places, motives and images. There was a return in practice to the old meaning of the term.

In our hymn the adverb devote keeps intact the theological and spiritual force that the author himself (if it is Thomas Aquinas) had contributed to give to the term. The best explanation of what is meant here by «devotion» is in the words that follow, in the second part of the stanza: «Tibi se cor meum totum subiicit»: to you my whole heart abandons itself. Total and loving readiness to do the will of God.

[Sunday: Forgetfulness of everything]

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[1] Encyclical «Ecclesia de Eucharistia,» 6.

[2] The expression «latens veritas» is found in Isidore of Seville, Sent. III, col. 688, l. 22, but it is not referred to Christ. In favor of «latens Deitas» is the parallel with «latens humanitas» of the third stanza and also the possible allusion to Isaiah 45:15: «vere tu es Deus absconditus.»

[3] Cfr. de Lubac, op. cit., p. 287.

[4] Cfr. St. Thomas Aquinas, «Commento al vangelo di Giovanni,» VI, lez. 6, n. 954: «The manna only prefigured, while this bread contains what it represents» («continet quod figurat»).

[5] St. Augustine, In Ps. 98,9 (PL 37, 1264).

[6] G. Tersteegen, Geistliches Blumengärtlein 11, Stuttgart 1969, p.340 s.:

«Gott ist gegenwärtig; laßet uns anbeten,
Und in Ehrfurcht vor ihn treten!
Gott ist in der Mitte; alles in uns schweige
Und sich innigst vor ihm beuge!»

[7] Cfr. J. Charillon, art. Devotio, in Dict. Spir. 3, col. 715.

[8] St. Thomas, S. Th. II, IIae, q.82 a.1-2, cf. J.W. Curran, art. «Dévotion, Fondement théologique,» in Dict. Spir. III, coll. 716 ss.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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