Communion from the Chalice
We are all familiar with the words of Jesus when He instituted the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. There are four accounts in the New Testament, one in each of the first three Gospels and one in St. Paul’s 1st epistle to the Corinthians. All four accounts relate that in addition to the words over the bread, followed by the breaking of it and distribution to his followers, Jesus took a cup/chalice and said: take this all of you and drink of it, etc. We are familiar with these words because we hear them uttered by the priest (in persona Christi) every time we attend Mass.
One of the really big questions we have to ask ourselves as followers of Christ is: how long can we ignore what Christ is telling us what to do and still expect to be on the road to Sanctification.
Those versed in Liturgical history are familiar with the fact that as early as the writing of the New Testament, the Eucharist was simply identified as the “breaking of the bread” and therefore presumed to be sharing from a common loaf rather than individual wafers. It is also common knowledge that Communion was distributed under both species until the eleventh century ( i.e. in the Western Church; it has always been maintained in the Eastern Rites.) Even the most recent General Introduction to the Roman Missal admits this.
From the earliest days of the Church believers have always theologized, or tried to probe more deeply into the revealed mysteries. Thus, e.g. we have had some development in our finite understanding of such mysteries as the Trinity, the Incarnation and the role of Mary, mother of Jesus. The Eucharist is no exception. Believers inevitably came to question in what sense is the resurrected and glorious Christ truly present in the Eucharist. Not surprisingly the answer was not immediately unanimous. The arguments broke out into controversy in the 8th century among the monks of Flanders (northern modern France and Belgium). Over the next century or two, the consensus finally became that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist was far more than merely symbolic, but actual physical presence (remember we are dealing with a mystery). As a result of this realization both clergy and laity became much more concerned about exercising proper reverence for the real presence. It was at this time that individual hosts were introduced by reason of the fear of spilling crumbs containing the real presence. Simultaneously the Chalice was now withheld from the laity out of fear that since it continued to taste like wine, it might be spilled or otherwise abused by the laity. Incidentally, another by- product of the new mentality of extreme reverence led to a severe drop off of communion reception by the laity out of a sense of unworthiness, and replacing reception was the practice of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
So, e.g. during the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, the Church instituted the feast of Corpus Christi, with the emphasis at the time on processions, benedictions and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. St. Thomas, by the way is the theologian who finally worked out the doctrine of concomitance, i.e. even though the laity were now receiving only one species, each specie contained both the body and blood of Christ. This was in direct response to the fact that the chalice had been withdrawn from the laity, and was a defense of the then current practice, because he realized that a defense was necessary.
One should know that nevertheless there were some agitations from time to time that reception from the Chalice should be restored to the laity out of concern for fidelity to the instructions of Jesus. The Western Church, however had to face the really worrisome rebellion in central Europe by the Bohemians led by Jan Hus in the fifteenth century, who among other things demanded the restoration of the Chalice. Considering the quirks of human nature, it is not surprising that the response from Rome to such a threatening rebellion was a resounding no! Not long thereafter in the following century along came Martin Luther, who also advocated restoring the chalice to the laity. Bear in mind there was now room for considerable confusion among simply folk as to whether they were in a Catholic or Lutheran liturgy. Rome’s answer, not surprising under the circumstances, once again was no to the chalice for Catholics (to make clear the distinction from Lutherans). Thus we were frozen in a confrontational reaction to those threatening the unity of the Church.
Only in the beginning of the twentieth century, under the aegis of St. Pius X did the Church allow Communion to be given to children and once again advocate frequent Communion. For many of us who have studied and lived in the era of Vatican II reforms, it is manifestly evident that fifty years are but a drop in the bucket when trying to get the faithful to embrace reforms. So, e.g. when the Church’s Canon Law was previously reformed (1917), more than a decade after Pius X’s advocacy, it had to include a law requiring Catholics to receive Communion at least once per year. Meanwhile as frequent Communion finally came back, liturgists were once again agitating for the return of the Chalice to the laity, as the original tradition of Christ’s Church, and as uninterruptedly maintained by the Eastern Rites.
It is hardly surprising that Vatican II, called ostensibly to address the role of the Church in the modern world, as the very first item on its agenda, dealt with liturgical reform, and among many other things in reforming the Western (note once again, not the Eastern) Rite, restored the chalice to the laity.
Fifty years later, what do we see in our Parishes? One in five? One in six. Indisputably only a minority listening to Jesus words: “Take and drink, all of you…” seem to be taking Him at His word. Certainly there are justifiable exceptions, e.g. alcoholism, having an infectious ailment such as a cold or the flu, or having a weakened immune system which can’t tolerate even the chance of contact with germs. But are these exceptions statistically the majority we see ignoring the Chalice?
The fullness of the Sacrament of the Eucharist is the reception of the bread and the wine as the Sacramental signs indicating Christ’s body and blood. Listen to His Words!