I have to admit that I’ve always thought this hymn was about 300 years older and from a different continent than it actually is. It has such great, straightforward teaching of the Lutheran theology of Holy Communion that I always assumed that it was a German Lutheran reformation hymn when it fact it’s an American hymn written in 1910. In my defense, we do sing it to a German Lutheran tune from 1628. The author, Henry Jacobs was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1844. He attended Gettysburg-Lutheran seminary and later became a dean of the Evangelical Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia.
One of the things I love about the Lutheran theology of the Lord’s Supper is its simplicity. We simply believe what Jesus says. Our Lord says, “This is my body” and we agree. Perhaps this is part of what it means to have a child-like faith.
Let’s start with the actual words of Jesus, from Matthew 26:
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Now let’s compare this with stanza 1 and stanza 2:
Lord Jesus Christ, we humbly pray
That we may feast on You today;
Beneath these forms of bread and wine
Enrich us with Your grace divine.
Give us, who share this wondrous food,
Your body broken and your blood,
The grateful peace of sins forgiv’n,
The certain joys of heirs of heav’n.
Why do we begin the hymn with humility? Because the Lord’s Supper is a meal for sinners in need of forgiveness. We need his pardon, peace, and forgiveness, and these are only given to us by His grace. We use the term “Means of Grace” for the sacraments, because in them God has attached His Word and promise to physical things such as simple bread and wine in order to give His grace and forgiveness to us. Because of the promise, we know that the second stanza is answered with a definite yes from our Lord. This wondrous food is His body and blood, we are forgiven, and we are heirs of heaven. We look forward to the day when we will feast with our Lord in the “Father’s kingdom”.
By faith Your Word has made us bold
To seize the gift of love retold;
All that You are we here receive,
And all we are to You we give.
What does it mean that we give Him all we are and receive all the He is? We could interpret this to mean that we just want to really give God all of our love and affection and praise during worship. But I think Jacobs is referencing what we call the “great exchange”. This quote from Luther (from The Freedom of A Christian) helps to flesh out this idea:
Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage – indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage – it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.
Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?
In Holy Communion we are united with Christ. He takes our sin, death, and damnation, and we receive His grace, life, and salvation. We have nothing to give, we only receive His gifts.
One bread, one cup, one body, we,
Rejoicing in our unity,
Proclaim Your love until You come
To bring Your scattered loved ones home.
This stanza comes from two places in 1 Corinthians. First, from 1 Corinthians 10:
16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
And secondly, from 1 Corinthians 11:
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
We saw in the previous stanza that we are united with Christ. In this stanza, we see that this unity in Christ is also shared with one another, for we are the body of Christ. By participating in his holy sacrament together, we boldly proclaim His death and wait for Him to return and take us to the marriage feast.
Lord Jesus Christ, we humbly pray;
O keep us steadfast till that day
When each will be Your welcomed guest
In heaven’s high and holy feast.
The idea of the wedding feast is used in a couple of Jesus’ parables as well as the book of Revelation. The meal that we share together in this age is only a taste of the incredible feast that is to come. We pray something similar to stanza 5 in our communion liturgy. It’s the prayer of thanksgiving, and it’s a very dense prayer, but only because it is so full of riches. This is the second part.
Gathered in the name and the remembrance of Jesus, we beg You, O Lord, to forgive, renew, and strengthen us with Your Word and Spirit. Grant us faithfully to eat His body and drink His blood as He bids us do in His own testament. Gather us together, we pray, from the ends of the earth to celebrate with all the faithful the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end. Graciously receive our prayers; deliver and preserve us. To You alone, O Father, be all glory, honor, and worship, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen
To recap our five short stanzas; we poor sinners come to God’s sacrament of Holy Communion, we give Him our sin and death and receive His life and salvation through His true body and true blood, we are united with Him and with the body of Christ, and we are strengthened to continue, looking forward to the day when all will be united with Christ at His great wedding feast. Amen.