At Christmas, the Son of God was born of the Virgin Mary. This mystery has an intimate connection with the mystery of the Eucharist, one celebrated in the hymn that begins Ave verum Corpus natum de Maria Virgine: “Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary.” The hymn was composed in the fourteenth century, and its wording reflects the solution to a dogmatic controversy in the eleventh century.
Around 1040, a prominent theologian named Berengar of Tours (†1088) began to teach ideas about the Eucharist that some said were heretical. In Berengar’s theology, reason was supreme, and Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers of the Church were to be adjusted to what reason said. Another prominent theologian, Lanfranc of Bec (†1089), held the opposing view that the truths of faith are supreme, and while reason can and should be at the service of faith, it can never contradict it.
In the Eucharist, the “mystery of faith” par excellence, reason, basing itself on the senses, does not recognize the true Body of Christ. So Berengar said it was not the Body of Christ properly speaking, but only a symbol of Christ’s Body. He explained that the Church calls the bread and wine the Βody and Blood of Christ because that is what they represent, but they are really only a symbol.
He found a precedent for his teaching in Ratramnus († ca. 868), a Frankish monk of Corbie who had a similarly empirical mindset, though not quite the same doctrine. Ratramnus had written a work on the Eucharist in response to a correspondent who had asked him if we receive in the Eucharist the same body that was born of Mary, suffered, died, rose, and ascended to Heaven. He essentially said no: what we receive is not the physical body of Christ, but His sacramental body, which nourishes us spiritually. St. Paschasius Radbertus (†865) warned that these ideas led to an empty symbolism, and argued that there is no contradiction between figure and truth in the Eucharist.
Berengar was opposed by several theologians, including Lanfranc. In 1050, Berengar was excommunicated and imprisoned, and the work of Ratramnus to which he had appealed was condemned. However, when he was released, he resumed teaching the same doctrine, and so the controversy continued, with further interventions of the Church. In the Roman Synod of 1059 under Nicholas II, he was obliged to recant his error and subscribe to a statement of faith. In it, he professed “that the bread and wine that are placed on the altar, after the consecration, are not only a sacrament, but also the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and that they are sensibly, not only in sacrament but in truth, touched and broken by the hands of priests and ground by the teeth of the faithful.”
He later repudiated that profession of faith, and was not altogether wrong in doing so, because the last words seem to say something that is not true, namely that Christ’s own Body is broken when the host is broken, and is ground by the teeth of the faithful. Theologians would later explain, “the confession made by Berengar is to be understood in this sense, that the breaking and the crushing with the teeth is to be referred to the sacramental species, under which the body of Christ truly is.” The author of the profession of faith knew that, but in trying to forcefully affirm the real presence, he chose words that could easily be misunderstood, and so Berengar felt justified in repudiating it.
How could that problem be avoided, and the true Body and Blood of Christ be identified in unambiguous language? The answer would verify the liturgy’s praise of Mary: “you alone have destroyed all heresies in the whole world.” We find the solution in a work Lanfranc wrote against Berengar in 1066: “Therefore we believe that the earthly substances which on the Lord’s table … are sanctified … are converted into the essence of the Lord’s Body, … so that it can truly be said that it is the same Body that He received from the Virgin that we receive.” The answer to the question addressed to Ratramnus is yes.
Under the courageous reformer Pope St. Gregory VII, Berengar was summoned to another Synod at Rome in 1079. There he made a profession of faith in terms that spelled out an affirmative answer to the question once addressed to Ratramnus:
I, Berengar, in my heart believe and with my lips confess that through the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of our Redeemer the bread and wine that are placed on the altar are substantially changed into the true and proper and living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and that after consecration it is the true body of Christ (verum Christi corpus) that was born of the Virgin (natus est de Virgine) and that, offered for the salvation of the world, was suspended on the Cross and that sits at the right hand of the Father, and the true blood of Christ, which was poured out from his side, not only through the sign and power of the sacrament, but in its proper nature and in the truth of its substance.
Thus ended the controversy, and this statement of the Church’s faith in the Eucharist became a model for expressing that faith.
These words were studied and meditated, and became not only theology, but also prayer and song. So it was that in the fourteenth century someone—perhaps Pope Innocent VI—composed the chant that begins Ave verum Corpus natum de Maria Virgine (“Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary”).
The initial words are almost an exact quote from Berengar’s profession of faith. Thereafter it becomes a paraphrase: Vere passum, immolatum in cruce pro homine (truly having suffered, immolated on the cross for man). To immolate is to offer a sacrifice: the word comes from the Roman custom of sprinkling their sacrifices with mola salsa (spelt grain coarsely ground and mixed with salt). The Latin participles in this line modify “Body:” the profession of faith says it was offered for the salvation of the world and suspended on the Cross, while the chant more concisely says it was immolated on the Cross for humanity.
The paraphrase continues in the third line: Cujus latus perforatum fluxit aqua et sanguine (from whose pierced side flowed water and blood). Although this is clearly drawing on John 19:34, we can also see the influence of Berengar’s profession that the Eucharist is “the true blood of Christ, which was poured out from his side.”
Following the classic form of prayer, after having stated these truths of faith, the chant makes a petition: Esto nobis praegustatum mortis in examine (be for us a foretaste [of Heaven] in the trial of death). The hymn prays to be strengthened in the ordeal of death by Communion in the form of viaticum, so that the union with Christ experienced in that moment may continue for all eternity.
The chant closes with a series of invocations: O Jesu dulcis! O Jesu pie! O Jesu fili Mariae! (O sweet Jesus! O loving Jesus! O Jesus, Son of Mary!). These call to mind those of the Salve Regina: O clemens: O pia: O dulcis Virgo Maria (O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary). Τhis antiphon reached its final form early in the thirteenth century, and thus could well have inspired the Ave verum. The two adjectives are the same, although their order is inverted: the mention of a foretaste in the previous line leads easily to thinking of Jesus as sweet. The last invocation closes the circle, returning to the thought of the body born of the Virgin Mary with which the chant began.
St. John Paul II reflects on the hymn
The hymn, fruit of meditation, became itself an object of meditation in succeeding centuries. To limit ourselves to a recent example, St. John Paul II spoke about it on more than one occasion. It came to his mind repeatedly on the second Sunday after Pentecost, on which the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ is celebrated in much of the Catholic world. In 1983, he said,
On the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, our grateful thanks is raised to the Father, who has given us the Divine Word, the living Bread come down from heaven, and our thanks is joyfully raised to the Virgin, who offered the Lord his innocent Flesh and his precious Blood which we receive at the altar. “Ave, verum Corpus”: true Body, truly conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit, borne in the womb with ineffable love (Preface II of Advent), born for us of the Virgin Mary: “natum de Maria Virgine.”
“Hail, true Body born of the Virgin Mary” does not just clearly identify the Body present in the Eucharist, it also implies that the Eucharist depends on Mary’s fiat. Therefore, while we thank the Father for Christ’s divinity, we thank her for His humanity: without her, He would have neither body nor blood. These are the fruit of the work of the Spirit and of her ineffable love.
A further implication is that the Eucharist is not mere fruit of her will to love, there is something of her in it:
That divine Body and Blood, which after the consecration is present on the altar, is offered to the Father, and becomes Communion of love for everyone, by consolidating us in the unity of the Spirit in order to found the Church, preserves its maternal origin from Mary. She prepared that Body and Blood before offering them to the Word as a gift from the whole human family that he might be clothed in them in becoming our Redeemer, High Priest and Victim.
The Body and Blood she offered to the Word, once assumed by Him, will become the sacrifice offered to the Father and the Communion offered to the faithful. By holy Communion they are united not only to Him, but also to each other, as St. Paul teaches: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16). The Holy Father’s reflection here connects the first two lines (Ave verum and Vere passum) and passes beyond them to consider Communion and its unifying effect on the Church. He then comes back to the first line to further consider it.
At the root of the Eucharist, therefore, there is the virginal and maternal life of Mary, her overflowing experience of God, her journey of faith and love, which through the work of the Holy Spirit made her flesh a temple and her heart an altar: because she conceived not according to nature, but through faith, with a free and conscious act: an act of obedience. And if the Body that we eat and the Blood that we drink is the inestimable gift of the Risen Lord to us travellers, it still has in itself, as fragrant Bread, the taste and aroma of the Virgin Mother.
So the Eucharist also represents a gift of Mary. It is the Risen Lord who gives His Body and Blood, but He is only able to do so because He received them from Mary. The fact of this reception also has a further implication, namely that the Eucharist “still has in itself, as fragrant Bread, the taste and aroma of the Virgin Mother.” What we receive in Communion is Christ’s Body, not Mary’s, yet because “the whole substance of Christ was from his Mother”, it is more like hers than is the case for any other son.
The pontiff concludes with a reflection on the second line:
Born of the Virgin to be a pure, holy and immaculate oblation, Christ offered on the Cross the one perfect Sacrifice which every Mass, in an unbloody manner, renews and makes present. In that one Sacrifice, Mary, the first redeemed, the Mother of the Church, had an active part. She stood near the Crucified, suffering deeply with her Firstborn; with a motherly heart she associated herself with his Sacrifice; with love she consented to his immolation (cf. Lumen Gentium, 58; Marialis Cultus, 20): she offered him and she offered herself to the Father. Every Eucharist is a memorial of that Sacrifice and that Passover that restored life to the world; every Mass puts us in intimate communion with her, the Mother, whose sacrifice “becomes present” just as the Sacrifice of her Son “becomes present” at the words of consecration of the bread and wine pronounced by the priest.
The reference to “a pure, holy and immaculate oblation” alludes to the words of the Roman Canon, also known as Eucharistic Prayer I. He goes on to state the Catholic doctrine that while there is only one sacrifice, it is renewed and made present in an unbloody manner in the Mass. Because Mary is the first redeemed by her Immaculate Conception, she was capable of taking an active part in the redemption: she offered herself and her Son. What the pope says about that active part is almost an exact quote from Lumen gentium 58, which was quoted in part by St. Paul VI in Marialis cultus 20. So in this he is merely repeating the teaching of the Council and his predecessor.
What is new is a pope teaching that the Mother’s sacrifice “becomes present” like the Son’s does. Yet this makes a great deal of sense, given the two teachings of the Church that the pope has just recalled: the Mass makes present the sacrifice of Calvary, and Mary was by God’s design an integral part of that sacrifice. The sacrifice of the Mass would not be complete without Mary’s sacrifice in some way becoming present. Now if we want to know exactly how it is present, then we may have to wait some decades or centuries, for theologians still haven’t agreed on exactly how the Mass is a sacrifice. Theology must continue to inspire prayer, and prayer theology, until the consummation of the world, when there will be no more figures or shadows, but only the Truth seen face to face.
 On Berengar, see Ángel García Ibañez, L’Eucaristia, dono e mistero: Trattato storico-dogmatico sul mistero eucaristico (Roma: EDUSC, 2006), 206–13; “Berengar of Tours,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, January 6, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Berengar-of-Tours.
 On Ratramnus, see García Ibañez, L’Eucaristia, dono e mistero, 194–205.
 Heinrich Denzinger and Peter Hünermann, eds., Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, 43rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), no. 690.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, III, q. 77, a. 7, ad 3.
 Roman Breviary, Common of the BVM, seventh antiphon at matins. The common is a relatively recent addition to the liturgy, but the antiphon is ancient (cf. PL 78:799A).
 Lanfranc of Bec, De corpore et sanguine Domini, 18 (PL 150:430BC).
 Denzinger and Hünermann, Enchiridion, no. 700. I added a comma after “his side” for clarity.
 Text from Liber usualis (Parisiis: Desclée & Socii, 1962), 1856: the wording may vary in other editions.
 Liber usualis, 276.
 John Paul II, Angelus, June 5, 1983, in Osservatore Romano English edition, no. 788, p. 2. “With ineffable love” is a translation of the preface as the pontiff quoted it. The translators of the 2011 English missal have replaced the word “ineffable” by rendering the expression “with love beyond all telling.”
 St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Sent. III, d. 4, a. 3, q. 1, conclusio: “tota substantia Christi fuit de Matre sua” (Bonaventura, Opera Omnia, ed. PP. Collegii a S. Bonaventura (Ad Claras Aquas (Quaracchi, prope Florentiam): ex Typographia Collegii S. Bonaventurae, 1882–1902), 3:112a).
 John Paul II, Angelus, 5 June 1983.