A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Chalice versus cup

Fr Merv Duffy sm

by Fr Merv Duffy sm

One of the characteristics of the new translation of the English mass is the formality of the language. The translators seem to have taken delight in employing rare and obscure words and phrases. I think some of it is poorly chosen, but one of the most striking words has made me think they are on to something.

In the Eucharistic Prayer the Latin word calix comes up frequently. A calix is a drinking vessel or cup, and most modern scripture translations render it and poterion, its Greek equivalent, as “cup”. In the earlier translation of the Eucharistic Prayers we heard:

He took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it;
this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.

Now we are hearing:

He took the chalice and, once more giving thanks, he gave it to his disciples, saying:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it,

for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant.

As we hear those words a drinking vessel is held up by the celebrant. If you look at the photo you will see that what is shown is a chalice, not a cup. We do not drink wine out of cup, we drink from a wine glass or goblet. In the context of the liturgy, “cup” is too ordinary a word for what we use and has the wrong connotations in English. A cup is what you drink tea from.

Cup and Chalice

Liturgy has elements of drama and re-enactment. I would imagine that, at the Last Supper ordinary drinking vessels were used – though its Passover context would have had them use the best they had. However the Mass is not merely an acting out of the Last Supper; it is the sacramental re-presentation of Calvary, of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. We come to Mass in our Sunday best and we use fine linen, beeswax candles, polished brass, beautiful flowers and colourful vestments. We are not merely remembering, we are celebrating and tapping into the salvation of the world. We use the worthiest materials we can afford to surround the elements, the materials chosen by Jesus to become his body and blood, humanity and divinity.

In short, I think the translators are right in using the word “chalice” rather than the word “cup” because the symbol we see elevated is something special, rather than something ordinary.

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