Tantum ergo

My grandmother, Irene, will celebrate her 99th birthday this Easter Friday. She gave us a little scare this past February, pretty much dying on us for a few moments. Yet, amid all the wailing, like Lazarus, she came back. Our large Filipino family, jammed shoulder to shoulder in her hospital room that week, later said that she was just checking in on our grandfather, Agustin, who loved to dance with all the ladies at every party. This is for my grandmother and for all who have taught us the meaning of these holiest of days.

Reflection (from Give Us This Day)

Therefore we before him bending,
This great sacrament revere,
Types and shadows have their ending,
For the newer rite is here;
Faith, our outward sense befriending,
Makes the inward vision clear.

Glory let us give, and blessing
To the Father, and the Son,
Honor, might, and praise addressing,
While eternal ages run;
Ever too his love confessing,
Who, from both with both is one. Amen.

In the late thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the hymn Pange lingua for the newly instituted feast of Corpus Christi. The last two stanzas of this hymn are known as the Tantum ergo. Today the Tantum ergo is sung during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The hymn is also sung at the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.

I grew up singing Tantum ergo on Holy Thursday. I never understood the mysterious Latin words, but I could tell what they meant by what we did when we sang. As the priest placed a veil over his shoulders and arms, everyone fell silent. Ministers gathered about the altar as the servers lit processional candles and the priest enveloped a large golden vessel holding the Blessed Sacrament with his veil. Then the long, slow procession began, and we sang Pange lingua as we followed the candles and the priest outside into the darkness. Once in the parish hall, everything was silent again as we knelt on the hard floor. For a few moments, all you heard was the clink-clink of the chain hitting the incense bowl as the priest swung it before the Blessed Sacrament. Then that pregnant silence was broken by song: “Tantum ergo Sacraméntum, Venerémur cérnui…”

My grandmother praying (photo © Robin Mendoza)

As a child, I could not understand Aquinas’s profound theology of how faith reveals to believers the inner reality of what we see in the Eucharist—the glorified, ever-abiding presence of Christ among us. Yet I knew that the veil enveloping the priest’s shoulders was like my grandmother’s shawl. In her arms, covered by that shawl, I had found whatever I needed without ever asking. This yearly procession of light in the darkness, accompanied by a song I did not understand, was somehow connected with my grandmother’s evening ritual. In her room each night, she lit candles on her prayer altar that held photos of each of her children, living and dead, and holy cards she collected over her lifetime. The smoke from the matches lingered like incense about her. There, she knelt and prayed in her native tongue in words I could barely hear but knew to be her thanks for the day’s blessings, for she smiled even when there were tears.

She, who was daily fed by the Eucharist, fed our family by her life of faith. Through whatever sufferings she endured, she ended each day with praise for all God’s gifts. The shadows of dreams we thought would nourish us, the things of this world that promised to satisfy, she helped us see as fleeting in the light of Christ who gave us a new covenant, a new pattern to follow, and a new way of seeing through the eyes of faith.

This Holy Thursday, I will lift my voice in song and try to do as my grandmother did by seeing with her eyes to what is hidden beneath the veil of this life—eternal life with the Trinity in whom we move together on our daily journey from darkness to light.

—Diana Macalintal is the Director of Worship for the Diocese of San Jose and co-founder of TeamRCIA.com.

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  1. Thank you. The singing of the Pange Lingua at the conclusion of Maundy Thursday Mass is probably one of the most dear moments to me in the liturgical year.

  2. I’m also glad to hear about your grandmother and that she is well. My grandmother is also someone I look too for a model of devout living.

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