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Prayer for the week

11 October 2013

Ben Stephens commends a favourite prayer attributed to St Thomas Aquinas

O God, who in a wonderful Sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of thy Passion: Grant us, we beseech thee, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruits of thy redemption; who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.

MANY years ago, when I first began spend­ing weekends in London, on Sundays I attended a small and dark red-brick church so close to the railway tracks that you could hear and feel the rumble of the trains as they passed by.

It is testament to the diversity of the Church of England that this church used languages other than English in its worship; and it was there, at the regular Sunday-evening eucharistic service, immersed in simple worship-chants, that I learned this prayer in a language other than my own. I have treasured it ever since.

Attributed to St Thomas Aquinas, the prayer is the collect for the feast of Corpus Christi - instituted in the Western Church by Pope Urban IV in 1264 - and was taken up by Common Worship as the collect at the eucharist on the Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion (Corpus Christi), which is something more of a mouthful than the modern Roman title for the festival, The Body and Blood of Christ. It is a prayer of past, present, and future; and particularly of our past, present, and future - in and with God.

First, the prayer reminds us that in the institution of the eucharist we have been left a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ himself; one that calls to mind the saving work of Calvary, and, as Aquinas writes in his Disputed Questions on Truth, "crowns all the other sacraments". We are called, as Fr Hugh Allan OPraem said recently in a sermon, "to hold high the Blessed Sacrament above all the misery and errors of the world".

Second, it asks God in the here and now to enable us to worship him on earth - the nuances of Aquinas's original "veneratio" hint at reverence, respect, and honour - as we wait for the day when these "sacred mysteries" will be fully revealed.

Third, the prayer asks for us always to be reminded in the eucharist of the process by which Christ has won us for himself: that our human flesh has been sanctified by his incarnation, and has been raised into heaven with him by his ascension to his Father. It seeks the gift of grace to continue our journey, more perfectly aware that we dare not amble aimlessly through life, but rather, with St Paul, run as if to win the prize (1 Corinthians 9.24).

Inevitably, such a rich and thought-provoking prayer can hardly be restricted to public use once a year on a summer's Thursday, when the festival of Corpus Christi falls. It could be used in private devotions while preparing for a celebration of the eucharist, after having received holy communion, or as an act of thanksgiving after the service. It could also be prayed by communicants at home: either in the morning on a day when they intend to receive holy communion, or at night on a day when they have done so.

It could illuminate the whole eucharistic experience of those preparing to receive communion for the first time, and seal that of those receiving it for the last time. Our place has been prepared; and this "wonderful Sacrament" is our food for the journey.

Dr Ben Stephens is a freelance writer and theologian.

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