Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
by Father Jan Larson
(From the May 18, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Legends abound about what has come to be known as the Holy Grail, with many of these medieval stories claiming that the Holy Grail is the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. The stories and legends tell of the origins of the grail, and the adventures of those who searched for it in vain. Many myths about the grail describe a cup or chalice that has special powers, and that will bring extraordinary blessings to those who find and possess it.
The cup or chalice used at the Liturgy of the Eucharist today is a descendent of the Holy Grail, but unlike the cup of the legends, the cup used at the Mass today claims no special powers or blessings in and of itself. The cup used at the liturgy has significance only because it contains the sacramental Blood of Christ, and because it symbolizes for us our unity in Christ – all of us believers becoming more deeply the place where Christ dwells, because we share the “one bread and the one cup.”
The cup Jesus used at the Last Supper was probably an ordinary dinner utensil, likely made from pottery, wood or metal. Biblical archaeologists tell us that it may likely have had two handles, which would have been common for that time and place in history. After the year 312, when Christianity was free to spread, liturgical chalices began to be made from more precious materials, often decorated with intricate carving and jewels, as a mark of respect for the consecrated wine. In the first half of Christian history, the clergy and laity received Communion from the cup, but in the 12th century, due to an exaggerated sense of unworthiness to receive Communion at all, the chalice was gradually withdrawn from the laity. This unfortunate development was officially confirmed by the Council of Constance in 1415. For well over five centuries, only the clergy received Communion from the chalice, but the original, traditional practice of receiving Communion under both forms, bread and cup, was happily restored by the Second Vatican Council in 1963.
The cup or chalice we see on the altar today has a special character, not because of its quality, beauty, or artistic design, but because of the sacrament it contains. For this reason our Church’s tradition requires that the cup be blessed before it is first used in the liturgy. The words of the blessing ask, “Lord, with joy we place on your altar this cup, the vessel with which we will celebrate the sacrifice of Christ’s new covenant. May it be sanctified, for in it the blood of Christ will be offered, consecrated, and received. Lord, when we celebrate Christ’s faultless sacrifice on Earth, may we be renewed in strength and filled with your Spirit, until we join with your saints at your table in heaven.”
When we see the cup on the altar or see it lifted by the priest or deacon, we see not only the cup that contains the sacramental presence of the Rise4n Christ. We also see the cup as a sacred object that symbolizes Christ’s invitation to be more deeply united with him and with his Church. That same cup is also a reminder that Jesus invites us to both “take this and eat” and “take this and drink from it.” As the Church teaches us, receiving Communion under both forms – consecrated bread and wine – is a deeper form of participation in the liturgy, a “fuller sign of the Eucharistic banquet.” It was this “fuller sign” that Jesus intended, and that he offered to his followers at the Last Supper.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)