“At the Lamb’s High Feast” This hymn text originated in the medieval age. All hymns from this time were written in Latin, as it was not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century that hymnody in the vernacular (“common language”) was sung. This text, “Ad coenam Agni providi” comes to us from an anonymous author (as most early hymn texts were), although this hymn was early spread to England, Italy and Spain. Technically, this is an Easter text. However, there is no reason not to sing Easter hymns throughout the church year (except maybe for Lent), and there are good reasons to sing them year-round.
Most likely this hymn was used at the Easter Vigil services. In the early and medieval Church, catechumens, or those adult converts who had studied the Christian faith for as long as three years, were baptized only on Holy Saturday’s Easter Vigil (the evening before Easter morning) and on Pentecost. Donning a white alb symbolizing rebirth in Christ, these new converts would be baptized (usually they were dunked in the water—the early church knew nothing of the candy dish that so often passes for a font in our churches), were confirmed and then received first communion. In some circles, particularly in England, Pentecost is still known as “Whitsuntide,” or “white Sunday,” in reference to the white albs worn by the converts to be baptized. Easter Vigil on the other hand is a commemoration of Christ “passing from death to life” which, from a theological perspective, is what happens at baptism. Notice the death/life eucharistic imagery used in this hymn. The first stanza praises the “victorious king,” Christ, “Who has washed us in the tide flowing from His pierced side.” Christ’s blood shed at Calvary cleanses and effects forgiveness through baptism. We sing in the second stanza that “Christ the victim, Christ the priest” has given “his sacred blood for wine, give his body for the feast.” In the Old Testament sense, Christ was the “priest,” offering the sacrifice to God on behalf of the people. Yet, unlike those ancient priests, he was the sacrifice himself. This concept of God sacrificing Himself (in the context of the Trinity) for the sins of the people for no account of their own is a theological concept unique to Christianity. In all other religions, humanity must come to God. In Christianity, God comes to humanity.
Notice further Old Testament imagery in the third stanza. “Where the paschal blood is poured, death’s dread angel sheathes the sword; Israel’s hosts triumphant go through the wave that drowns the foe.” In a metaphorical sense, we modern humans are like Israel. We, too, are saved from the ravages of Satan the foe (ie., pharoah) by a God who first leads us by cloud and pillar of fire, and who “drowns the foe” not by the waters of the Red Sea but in the waters of baptism. Baptism may not be an outwardly dramatic event (especially the way candie-dish-using Lutherans practice it), but inwardly it is no less dramatic than the Red Sea falling in on the advancing chariots.
The fourth stanza praises Christ, the “Paschal victim, paschal bread; with sincerity and love eat we manna from above.” From the term pascha we derive “passion.” We speak of Christ’s “passion” as being the time preceding His death. He has fulfilled the Old Covenant so that the manna we eat from above is His own body—a eucharistic theology at once fulfilling the foreshadowing of the Old Testament.
As with any good hymn, there is much more to be said.