Why Part of the Host Is Placed in the Chalice

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Why Part of the Host Is Placed in the Chalice

By Father Edward McNamara

Rome, 07 July 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Why is a broken piece of the consecrated host placed in the chalice during the “Lamb of God”? The pope used to break the consecrated host and send pieces to his main churches as a sign of unity, right? The pope does not do that anymore.

In the Middle Ages we felt the need to unite Christ’s body with his blood before Communion because of a more literal understanding of the separation of his body and blood with the separate consecrations. We believe that Christ is totally present under both species of the consecrated bread and wine. So, why now do we still place a piece of the host in the chalice? — C.F., Chicago

A: The practice of the pope of sending some of the Eucharist he consecrated to other churches is very ancient (some other bishops did it, too). There is evidence of it in the works of St. Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202) and in later centuries. It was not always sent to every church, and gradually the practice was restricted to major feast days and eventually disappeared. There is no evidence of it after the ninth century.

There was also a later usage in which a part of the host from a previous papal celebration was placed in the chalice to symbolize the continuity of the sacrifice. This usage was of relatively brief duration during the eighth century and never spread beyond Rome.

The present usage would appear to be a survival of the eighth-century papal custom of the celebrating pope placing a part of the host he has consecrated in the chalice accompanied by the prayer that is substantially still used today: “May this mingling [‘and consecration’ in the extraordinary form] of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”

The present form of the rite would appear to stem from the fusion of the Roman rite with Germanic customs that occurred under the reign of Charlemagne (circa 747-814) by St. Benedict of Aniane (747-821), although it was not fully established until about a century later.

According to the noted liturgist J. A. Jungmann, the symbolism behind this practice in the Middle Ages was: “the commingling which represented the Body of Christ returned to life preceded the peace greeting of the ‘Pax Domini’; for indeed our Lord rose from the dead, and only then did he bring peace to heaven and earth.”

Jungmann also points out that this connection to the death on the Cross led to the custom of making the triple sign of the Cross over the chalice with the particles of the host during the invitation: “the peace of the Lord be with you always” which is still part of the extraordinary form and which has parallels in some Oriental liturgies based on the same symbolic meanings.

This symbolic meaning is slightly different from that which our reader attributes to the Middle Ages. The medieval theologians also mostly held that the risen Christ was fully present in both species and understood perfectly that the commingling of the two species before the sign of peace symbolized the resurrected Christ without having any sacramental efficacy.

This interpretation, however, does not appear to be the original meaning of the rite and is generally attributed to Bishop Amalar of Metz (780-850) who was famed for his allegorical interpretations of the liturgy.

In spite of its popularity, this explanation, and the rite itself, was not without problems. During the process of reforming the missal after the Council of Trent there were objections against it insofar as it could be interpreted in the sense that the body and blood of Our Lord would be united to each other only after the commingling and not already at the consecration of the two species. This could have supported the arguments of those who held that communion under one species was insufficient.

Several proposals were made to change the prayer formula so as to bring the rite back to its original meaning, which apparently was more closely associated with the preparation for communion than with the rite of peace. Jungmann, after examining the historical evidence, concludes, “We are therefore justified in regarding the thought that both species represent one Sacrament and contain one Christ as the original meaning of the Roman rite of commingling.”

The force of tradition prevailed, however, and the rite was left unchanged in the Tridentine Mass. Writing before the Second Vatican Council, Jungmann commented on this rite, “Scarcely anywhere else has the transparency of the liturgical procedure suffered so much by later contraction and compression as here in the purlieu of the fraction and commingling, although the elements of the ancient tradition have been faithfully preserved.”

In the ordinary form of the Roman rite, some small but significant changes can help us to bring the meaning of the rite back to its original interpretation.

First of all, the commingling is more visible to all and not just to those at the altar.

Second, and more importantly, the rite of the commingling has been shifted from before to after the sign of peace and so returned to a position before or during the “Lamb of God” which, according to the historical evidence, was its original position. In this manner the original meaning of linking the commingling to the communion could now be brought out more clearly.

This is probably the reason for the change of the rite after Vatican II. And this, as well as the weight of nearly 2,000 years of practice, is why we continue to do so.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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