It is taken as an axiom in some progressive liturgical quarters that the Latin calix (in Greek, poterion) should be translated “cup,” not “chalice.” This is held to be more faithful to the meaning of the Greek of the New Testament, more faithful to the context and the vessel likely used by Our Lord at the Last Supper, and thus the better term for use in worship.
I’m not so sure.
As much as the Bible is a standard for Christian worship, this is not the only consideration at play. The Mass is not simply a historical reenactment of the actions of Jesus in first-century Palestine. The Mass is the Crucified and Risen Christ acting now, in the Church today.
A simple google search for “church supplies, chalice” shows that the word “chalice” is firmly part of the vernacular usage today. “Chalices” are what church suppliers are selling. On this day, the Lord’s Day, clergy, acolytes, altar servers and eucharistic ministers, as they carry out their ministries, speak of “chalices.”
The value of using the term “chalice” in our English liturgical translation of the words of Jesus, it seems to me, is that it connects the historical Last Supper with our contemporary liturgical practice.
Jesus did not wear an alb and chasuble at the Last Supper, any more than he used a chalice and paten like those in our church supply catalogs. And yet, he was a priest celebrating Mass, there in the upper room. And at our altars on the Lord’s Day, as we see vested ministers using dignified liturgical vessels, it is Jesus himself who is acting, offering us his Body and Blood as he did his disciples.
To be sure, the firm connection between history and sacrament could also be forged from the other direction. By using simple, domestic vessels in the liturgy, by using the more historically accurate term “cup,” we would also give witness that our liturgy is the Last Supper and the Last Supper is our Christian liturgy.
(A curiosity of the 2011 English Missal, by the way, is that the supper narrative uses “chalice,” but then the Memorial Acclamation which follows has “cup.” I’m not sure how that happened.)
By using overly precious liturgical equipment and terminology, we run the risk of cutting the liturgy off from our daily lives, of making it what sacramental theologians call epiphenomenological. That too is a problem.
But as long as we do use chalices in our current day liturgies, and as long as we do call them chalices, there is a case to be made for placing our chalice, as it were, in the hands of Jesus in the Eucharistic Prayer.
Salvador Dali’s “The Sacrament of the Last Supper,” with its large square altar and disciples in albs bowing in adoration, sloppily blurs history and liturgy. The boundaries between Supper, Cross, and Tridentine Spanish eucharistic piety are fluid. It’s a domestic glass of wine and home-baked, leavened bread, I concede. But the whole is sacralized and liturgized.
I’m not an art critic, so I won’t speak to the aesthetic merit of Salvador Dali’s famous painting. But theologically and liturgically, I think he has it exactly right.
Feature Image: “The Sacrament of the Last Supper,” Salvador Dali, 1955.