The phrase “Panis Angelicus” means “bread of heaven”, and was penned by St. Thomas Aquinas at the request of Pope Urban the 4th. Warning: I am about to wax theological, in case you wish to jump ship now…
This, for some, brings up the much debated issue of Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, and Commemoration (I warned you). Specifically, the question as to whether the bread and wine/grape juice of the (Eucharist/Communion) in some sense become the body and blood of Christ, or if they are merely symbols to aid us in commemoration. The lyric of Panis Angelicus, of course, assumes the traditional Catholic position. Some traditions, such as the Lutheran, adopt a middle ground of sorts, believing that the bread is both the body of Christ and literal bread in some sense. I have heard it said that the Lutheran belief is that the bread ‘spiritually’ becomes the body of Christ, but I hold that idea loosely, and will probably ask a Lutheran friend for confirmation (no pun intended).
Anglican churches have landed on the term “real presence” which makes it difficult to pin down, which is the intent as I understand it! I found the following poem, penned by Elizabeth I, who had seen a time of great conflict around this issue while her father was reigning, to be pleasantly ambiguous:
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 takes a position similar to the Catholic, but a bit less definitively, and emphasizes the mystery of the Eucharist. As an aside, I appreciate the more mystical approach to the faith the Orthodox assume; an honest consideration of such differences is healthy, and leads to a deeper understanding of what it true.
Many Protestant churches view the “Lord’s Supper” to be a commemoration, that is, a memorial to the sacrifice of the Christ, but do not believe that in any sense the bread and the wine/juice become the actual body and blood of the Lord. It is my opinion that some churches taking this view err on the side of lessening the significance and rich meaning of the event out of fear that some might misunderstand their church’s position.
Certain magnificent songs are a “casualty” of the theological differences between Christian churches, in that, for example, you will almost never hear Panis Angelicus in Protestant circles, save possibly in a Lutheran church. The same would be true of Ave Maria, though as I explained in another post, alternate lyrics have been penned for this eminently recognizable song that can therefore be safely employed in Protestant settings.