Cup or Chalice?

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.





  1. Anthony, I like the thrust of your argument. But, I think “chalice” masks the “noble simplicity” (to use a phrase!) of the historical core at the heart of the eucharist prayer. “Cup” helps peel away the layers of sophisticated, theological language to get back to the “nucleus” of the last supper. For me, “chalice” envokes a unintended falsehood, which is doesn’t sit well with my perception of the biblical account of the last supper.

  2. In Canadian French, ‘calice’ is a swear-word. But no one in Rome knows that except, perhaps, Cardinal Ouellet, a former Archbishop of Quebec!

    1. They would if they watched “Mad Men.” Megan Calvet, Don Draper’s Canadian second wife, says it once when she’s angry.

    2. Isn’t that part of a larger trend in Canadian French to substitute “holy” words for more sinful swear words, though? I recall reading an article a while back where they substitute other words like “tabernacle” for swearing. I imagine that whether or not it is a swear word depends on context and tone – or is the word “calice” now only known as a naughty word divorced from its original meaning regardless of how it is used?

      In US English, I have heard “blessed” used as a substitute for “damned,” but said in the same tone and context – as in “I wish this God-Blessed thing would work!” I doubt anyone would argue that “blessed” is therefore always a swear word and should be avoided. The word “ass” is another example in English.

  3. Although I think cup would more accurately describe what Our Lord used, I am more bothered by the words preceding in the run up to the consecration – ‘ this holy and precious chalice ‘ (EP1). If He had really used something like the claimant in Valencia Cathedral, Judas would not have slid out without quietly removing it for safekeeping. Unfortunately this distracting thought often comes to me.

    1. I always thought the chalice was “holy and precious” because of what it held, not because of what it was made of. I’m reminded of a traveling Vatican art show I went to a while back – there was a display case of beautiful chalices made of precious metals as well as an old wine glass and a coffee can lid that had been used by priests in a concentration camp – it was equally holy and precious because of what it was used for.

    2. For me, a confusion comes in when I am holding a chalice that is less than 35 years old and I say he took “THIS holy and precious chalice”. This is not true. Jesus never held my chalice.

      1. Actually I think that “this” is important; “this cup”, “hunc calicem” is an element of EP I that “connects the historical Last Supper with our contemporary liturgical practice”, as Anthony says above, although I would prefer to say that it connects our practice with the Supper. It is “this” cup because the contents are the same: “wine-that-will-become blood / wine-that-has-become-blood”. I put it this way not to downplay the realism of the change, but because the chronology of the change isn’t a major concern of the prayer in its current literary form (it is however emphasized by the ritual forms the prayer has been given since the later Middle Ages). However it is most emphatically not “this chalice”, because, as Barry Craig shows, “this chalice” can only be the vessel, not the contents of the vessel.

  4. We’ve had this discussion several times. Some people feel uncomfortable with “cup” because of associations with domestic tea-cups. Others feel uncomfortable with “chalice” because Jesus simply did not have a bejewelled, gilded, even pompous drinking vessel at the Last Supper. Yet others will point out that the Latin calix does not actually mean “chalice” but “stemmed drinking vessel” or “goblet” (the latter word apparently vetoed because of associations with Harry Potter).

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why we can’t just say “He took a glass of wine”, which, after all, is exactly what he did.

    1. “A glass”? That would imply that “contemporary [Roman] liturgical practice,” in which glass Communion vessels are “reprobated,” is aggressively avoiding connection with “the historical Last Supper.” : )

  5. Fr Anthony, I wanted a ‘like’ button for this post. Words mean what we know them to mean, and in this context we all know what chalice actually means – with all its connotations. Cup no more contours up the right historical image than does chalice. Dynamic equivalence advocates no doubt ought to call it a drinking bowl…

    Other contributors: The assumption that the ‘cup’ would be simple seems at least open to debate to me. This was no carpenter’s cup, the meal didn’t take place at Our Lord’s home, but in someone else’s upper room and they had been told that it was to be used by the master. Would they not therefore have got out the best available tableware? The Seder custom of Elijah’s cup is attested in the first century and, at least nowadays, the most precious ‘cup’ available is used. Might it not have been so at the Last Supper? Obviously, all of that is supposition, but then so is the assumption that it was the humblest cup imaginable.

  6. Well, Anthony Hawkins, maybe Judas planned to come back for it, after picking up the thirty pieces of silver. But if the Last Supper was inded a passover meal – and yes, I know that is the synoptic but not the Joannine view – then Jesus would most likely have used a ceremonial vessel and not an ordinary drinking vessel. As I understand it, at any rate, around 100BC stoneware as opposed to pottery began to be used by Jews for ritual puposes. (John 2 mentions the stone jars of water at Cana, for example.) These vessels were made by cutting out a ‘core’ from a piece of stone, which was then honed into shape. Occasionally the core itself was hollowed out, making a smaller but more elegant vessel. These are rather rare, I have read, but the chalice in Valencia is probably one such ‘core’ vessel. (Of course it has had a metal stem added later.)
    I don’t think it at all improbable that Jesus used a special vessel, even an expensive one, for his final meal, perhaps a passover meal, with his disciples. Remember that Jesus rebuked Judas when the traitor objected to Mary pouring out ‘a pound of costly ointment’ over his feet. ‘The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.’ (Jn 12: 8)
    Whether the English word ‘chalice’ is the best word to describe the vessel Jesus used is another matter, but I don’t think it can be resolved by reference to the supposed ‘noble simplicity’ of the Last Supper.
    As for the chalice at Valencia, there is a reasonably plausible argument that it was brought to Spain in the third century from Rome, where it had been used by the pope in the belief that it was the chalice of Jesus. If this is so, the words ‘this precious chalice” in the Roman canon may in fact be a relic of that belief. Note too that in Latin ‘praeclarum’ is ‘famous’ rather than ‘precious’. I am not saying that this is a fact, but it may well have been believed to be so in the 3rd century.

  7. Friends,

    I’m not denying that it is important to determine the original meaning of ‘poterion’ in our Gospels. This is a very interesting question. (I have the impression that the weight of scholarly consensus is on the side of simplicity. I have a sneaking suspicion that those arguing for something historically more special or precious are doing so more out of present day liturgical agendas than desire for historical truth – but that may be overly suspicious on my part.)

    But the point of my post is this: historical accuracy need not be and should not be the uppermost consideration in liturgical texts. We’re in the realm of sacrament, not historical re-presentation. The comments about (alleged) historical accuracy are interesting, but I hope they aren’t missing the whole point of my post.


    1. Fr Ruff

      Perhaps analogous this would be the text of the Our Father in the liturgy (Mass/Divine Office, other rituals books). I believe it disturbs some scholars and liturgists that the customary English vernacular, introduced into the Roman rite in the wake of the conciliar liturgical reforms, is not “correct”. But that complaint partly assumes that the Our Father in the liturgy is supposed to be a “correct” Scriptural translation. Whereas a different perspective is the that liturgy has incorporated something taken from the centuries-long prayer life of the faithful.

  8. As far as I can tell, no English New Testament in the last 400 years, except for the Douay-Rheims and its early-twentieth-century Confraternity descendants, has used “chalice.” This unanimity of hundreds (thousands?) of scriptural translators in support of “cup” should decide the question, I think.

  9. I am not a scripture scholar but I believe virtually every English language translator of Paul’s reference in Corinthians to what was handed down used the word “cup”. And to the best of my knowledge, two of the three authorized English translations of the Eucharistic prayers translated “calix” as cup. I do agree with Fr. Anthony that every Catholic is conversant with the word chalice and know what it refers to. But if you asked them what a chalice is, most would respond “it’s the cup the priest uses at Mass.” And while religious goods suppliers sell lots of chalices, their catalogues also refer to communion ware and communion cups. I believe we all know the word cup was changed to chalice in the 2011 translation because the Latin overlords believed that chalice looks more like calix and struck them as more “sacral”.

  10. This topic has indeed arisen here before, and elsewhere in some detail:

    In brief: “chalice” and “cup” are both liturgically correct, but it depends on context. “Chalice” is the proper term for our vessel, and so is properly used in instructions, rubrics, and texts that refer to the vessel. The institution narrative’s reference is not to the vessel but to its contents, the drink, the wine, for which “cup”, via metonymy, is standard English. The history behind “hunc praeclarum calicem” points to the contents being an intoxicating drink, specifically wine, and not to any kind of pretty vessel. Probably the only translation that would have avoided contention, except among those Protestants who use grape juice, is “he took the wine…” which is in all ways true.

    Perhaps of further interest to you, I am not aware of any attention given in the early centuries to the shape or material of the Eucharistic vessel, nor was the word calix always used in Latin; we sometimes find poculum. And as the “hunc praeclarum” addition entered Western usage, most of the Eastern churches adopted a specification that the vessel contained a mixture of water and wine.

  11. The transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord happens with the epiklesis; the narrative of institution is just that, a narrative of the words used by Jesus (despite differences between the Gospel and Pauline accounts) with an action to “gesturize” the story… Does it really matter whether one uses “chalice” or “cup”? Why not admit both? Why the, what seems to me inordinate, concern for “uniformity” in words?

  12. The really odd thing about the cup/chalice decision is that now the vessel that Jesus used is described as a chalice when it wasn’t, and the the one we use is described as a cup when it isn’t.

  13. Does anyone know how our Orthodox brothers and sisters translate proterion? Maybe we can make an ecumenical based decision.

    1. In looking through my library of several English versions of the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom, used in the Byzantine Liturgy by both Orthodox and Catholic, I can find no pattern. Some use “cup” throughout and some use “chalice” throughout and, in a couple of cases, “cup” is used before the words of Christ over the wine (which do not use “cup” as in Matthew and Mark), but use “chalice” when invoking the Spirit over the elements during the anamnesis (i.e., “cup” refers to what Jesus used, but “chalice” refers to what we use!).

  14. I would encourage everyone to read Barry Craig’s splendid article, which not only goes into the issue “in some detail”, but also satisfies me that there is no “case to be made for placing our chalice, as it were, in the hands of Jesus in the Eucharistic Prayer.” Craig makes it clear that “chalice” is fine to use in the rubrics and in the GIRM, as a description of the vessel, but is problematic in the Eucharistic prayer. The translation “this precious chalice” mangles the Latin and its antecedent texts; it misses the metonymy in the prayer; and it violates several precepts of Liturgiam Authenticam. Oh, and if those three strikes aren’t enough, do not miss Fr Craig’s very clear analysis (explicatio praeclara) of why “precious” is a mistranslation.

    I hope he won’t mind my quoting two paragraphs of his article.

    The findings can be summarized thus: by hunc praeclarum calicem is meant, according to the Fathers from the third to fifth centuries, and echoed down to at least the twelfth, that what Christ took into his hands was a potent cup of wine. The sacramental drink is truly potent and spiritually efficacious, for in commemorating the new covenant in Christ’s Blood it does not impart a profane inebriation. Rather, through the Holy Spirit, it grants spiritual sobriety by liberating the communicant from the tyranny of sin.

    The proposed translation this precious chalice both fails to maintain the proper sense of the words and reveals nothing of the phrase’s origin and interpretation. Again, to be fair, if the translators have not been informed on the latter then they cannot be expected to take it into account. However, on the linguistic grounds alone it remains wrong. Since the effect, determined by the normal English usage of these words, so focuses the mind of the hearer on the vessel, it contravenes LA 32 by restricting “the full sense of the original text within narrower limits.” Worse, the stated reason for preferring
    chalice to cup in this instance smacks of an “ideological influence” from which the texts are to be free (LA 3).

    Since we’re talking about metonymies, I can’t help remembering the line from James Thurber’s “Here Lies Miss Groby”:

    “If a woman were to grab a bottle of Grade A and say to her husband, “Get away from me, or I’ll hit you with the milk”, that would be a Thing Contained for the Container.

    1. Barry Craig’s excellent and well-documented study immediately came to mind when I read Anthony’s post. Jonathan Day is right; everyone who is concerned with this should read the article, including its footnotes! I had intended to summarize the relevant parts of its conclusions, but I see its author has already done so, and much better than I would have. I agree with Anthony that there needs to be a connection between the historical Last Supper and our contemporary liturgical practice. But “cup” establishes one, while “chalice” can’t, for the reasons developed in the article, and laid out in Jonathan’s two quotations above.

      Perhaps we can go a little further. The offering clauses of the Eucharistic Prayers I and II offer “bread” and “cup”. EP I has “panem sanctæ vitæ aeternæ, et calicem salutis perpetuæ”, while EP II has “panem vitæ et calicem salutis”. When we say we “offer this cup”, we aren’t offering a vessel, no matter how sacred. It isn’t the object that saves us, but what the object contains, a drink that “inebriates in order to grant sobriety (“inebriet ut sobrios faciat”), restoring the mind to spiritual wisdom by redirecting it from matters earthly to divine. Just as profane wine intoxicates until it relaxes the mind and makes us forget our worries, so too drinking the Lord’s Blood from the cup of salvation (“poculum salutaris”) relaxes the communicant’s spirit, the ‘old man’ is put aside and the former worldly ways are forgotten” (Barry Craig’s translation of an extract from St. Cyprian’s Letter 63). In English only “cup” can convey that precise meaning, because only “cup”, and not “chalice”, can be used to designate what the vessel contains.

      1. I’m perfectly prepared to defer to the expertise of the linguists, but I do want to comment that in “normal English”, at least of the US variety, “cup” is not used as a common term for a vessel for drinking wine nor as a metonymy for a vessel of wine (“glass”). For a stemmed vessel, the very best that can be said of “cup” is that more precise words are available (“goblet”).

        For an audience of those initiated into the sacrament (such as one finds at a mass), “chalice” seems to work better than “cup”, both as a literal term and as a metonymy.

        None of this is to say that there aren’t other persuasive reasons to prefer “cup” to “chalice”. Just thinking about this particular argument.

    2. Another very important reason for reading Barry Craig’s excellent article is that it brings to light what seems to have been driving this decision when it was made, namely, an anti-Protestant (and anti-ecumenical) bias. This is what is being referred to in the section Jonathan quotes here, re: “ideological influence.”

      In other words, the memos concerning how the decision was reached show that an unfortunate and rather thin claim that chalice is Catholic and cup is Protestant was what was actually driving this decision. This claim is not borne out historically except in a few instances, which Craig shows, and any such distinctions however limited no longer exist today. But the fact that sectarian rivalries of the past which are for all intents and purposes “dead” were resurrected, in order to drive a wedge between Protestant and Catholic seems to me altogether out of keeping with the spirit of Vatican II as well as its letter, and with the actual requirements of LA as well.

  15. The other epiphenomenological danger that comes with the removal of “cup” is its connection to Christ’s Passion/Death. The synoptics use it in the garden scene – the cup not passing – and John, I believe, in the admonition to Peter to put his sword away since Jesus is to drink the cup given to him.

    I think that this discussion’s focus on the thing and the word belies the extent to which we have distanced ourselves from the sacrificial dimension of drinking the same cup Christ drank.

  16. I think that the Jewish tradition of kiddush might also be a part of the discussion, given that it predates the time of Jesus, and would most certainly have been a part of Seder and Sabbath meals for him and his disciples. In that tradition the vessel used to hold the wine would have definitely been a ceremonial one, likely used only for that purpose. Like the chalice, its 1st century materials and form are lost to the mists of time. Over the centuries though, it has evolved until the present day where it is most commonly a decorative stemmed vessel made of precious metal (most commonly silver.) The Hebrew word for it is קערת, which is commonly rendered in English as bowl, and is also the name for the plate that holds the Seder foods. However, when it holds wine, it is always translated as cup.

  17. Then you have the allusion to the gold and silver vessels which were used to catch the warm blood from the sacrificial victim to pour it out on the altar in the temple. They were large bowls.

  18. Quoting Fr. Ruff
    “This is a very interesting question. (I have the impression that the weight of scholarly consensus is on the side of simplicity” = Not Agenda driven
    “I have a sneaking suspicion that those arguing for something historically more special or precious are doing so more out of present day liturgical agendas than desire for historical truth – but that may be overly suspicious on my part.)” = Must be Agenda driven.
    I find it interesting that those with “Agenda Suspicion Disorder” never seem to be able to see their own Agenda.
    In fact both perspectives are agenda driven, and Alan Johnson (+1) has the most salient point on the matter:
    “The really odd thing about the cup/chalice decision is that now the vessel that Jesus used is described as a chalice when it wasn’t, and the the one we use is described as a cup when it isn’t.”

  19. I’m going to suggest a principle in English translation, complicate, and then attempt to fix it. Many Old English words have a nice, crisp, brief sound to them, whereas our Latin borrowings tend to be longer words. I’ll give a few examples which I hope won’t horrify people too badly, but a lot of Latin literature is about war and things (“arma virumque cano,” y’all).

    Sword vs gladius.
    Cut vs lacerate.
    Behead vs decapitate.
    Drink vs imbibe.
    Eat vs ingest.

    And so on. Latinate borrowings can sound clunky (see: “consubstantial with the Father,” vs. “being of one substance with the Father.”) “Cup” certainly sounds like a good, Germanic, crisp Old English sort of word; it’s in fact a borrowing from Latin’s cupa (or cuppa, in later Latin). So, we can nerd out philologically and see that we’re translating “calx” as “cup” — switching one borrowing for another. But I’d get over it quickly; Old English seems to have borrowed it very early. I like the argument of going with “cup” in the spoken words and “chalice” in the rubrics, chiefly for reasons of euphony. It’s striking (and not necessarily in a helpful way) to have a string of mostly Germanic-sounding words and then be hit in the face with the word “chalice,” both in the institution narrative and the words of institution themselves. Calling it a “glass,” though, removes Jesus from His first century context just as much as depicting Him with pants might. We can do better.

    I will note, for what it’s worth, that the hit song “Hooked on a Feeling,” written by the American song writer Mark James, includes the line “Girl, you’ve got me thirsty for another cup of wine.” It recently featured prominently in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not THAT outlandish.

    1. I am with you on euphony as an important dimension of translation, respecting the genius of the recipient vernacular. And three-letter and monosyllabic nouns are typically at the top of the English communication pyramid (a convention immortalized in a down-rent way in the the notorious Variety headline: “Sticks Nix Hick Pix”).

      I would add that, while “calix” probably conveys more gravitas than “cuppa” in Latin, it’s likely that the reverse is more true in English (at least American English) – “chalice” just sounds prissier.

      All that said, it’s so not a hill I would die on.

  20. Are all Pray Tell readers aware that “chalice” got substituted for “cup” in Matthew 20:22-23 in the lectionary (in the gospel for July 25)? I thought our bishops were supposed to protect the integrity of the Scripture we hear in church. (The published NAB still has “cup.”)

    1. I doubt that the members of the USCCB approved this. The USCCB Liturgy Secretariat staff introduced a number of changes (and errata) into the Lectionary text which the membership of the USCCB never approved.

  21. I miss the smoking brazier from Genesis 15:17 for Lent 2 in Year C…..”fire pot” is so clunky. And “brazier” offered a potential frisson in the event of an unprepared lector….

  22. So many comments. I prefer “cup”. In the context of contemporary english speakers, chalice sounds sorta precious and fussy—–

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