Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Where's the cup? - The chalice in the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar

“In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying: ‘Drink of it all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’” We hear these words every Sunday in the second half of the Words of Institution as our Lord uses wine to give us His true blood.  Jesus’ words are quite specific as He refers to “this cup.”  Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Altar in the setting of a Passover meal.  The New Testament clearly indicates that our Lord had the disciples share in common a cup that He was using (see Luke 22:17 where Jesus speaks about an earlier cup in the Passover meal). 

We do not know what this cup was made of, though clay and glass cups were common in first century A.D. Palestine. What we do know is that almost immediately the use of a common cup became a feature of early Christian worship and was important for understanding the nature and character of the Sacrament.  Paul emphasized the unity created by the Sacrament when he told the Corinthians, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).   

Paul’s words focused on the body of Christ.  However the use of a common cup quickly became important to the Church as she thought about the unity of the Sacrament.  In the early second century A.D. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “Be careful therefore to use one Eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup for union with his blood, one altar, there is one bishop with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants, in order that whatever you do you may do it according unto God” (To the Philadelphians, 4.1).

Cups for use in the Sacrament could be made out of glass or stone, but soon the use of gold and silver became typical, even before Christianity became legal.  During the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian, in 303 AD Roman authorities confiscated the property of a church in North Africa and found chalices made of gold and silver.  After Christianity became legal in 313 AD and was then supported by the Emperor Constantine, these chalices became more valuable and ornate.  Sometimes they were quite large and had handles attached to the sides.

During the medieval period the celebration of the Sacrament became something that people watched, rather than the gift of receiving the body and blood of Christ.  When they did receive the Sacrament they only received the body of Christ (often called “communion in one kind”).  As a result handles disappeared and chalices became smaller since usually only the priest handled and drank from it. The Lutheran Reformation restored the blood of Christ to the people in the celebration of the Sacrament as Christians again began to receive both body and blood.  Because the chalice was used to hold the blood of Christ, Lutheran chalices continued the tradition of finally crafted vessels made of silver or gold.[1]

Lutherans continued in the confession of the catholic (universal) Church that the Sacrament is the true body and blood of Christ.  However, churches that originated in the Reformed and radical portions of the Reformation denied this.  These churches believed that the Sacrament was symbolic and that there was nothing more present than bread and wine. Because the Sacrament was held to be a symbol of unity and not the means that creates it through the true body and blood of Christ, it is not surprising that it was this tradition that produced something completely new in the celebration of the Sacrament.  During the 1890’s several Congregational, Presbyterian and Baptist congregations in the United States began using individual communion cups held in a tray.  This change was prompted by concerns about hygiene and disease.

After arising in this setting, during the twentieth century individual cups (now usually disposable plastic) have become very common in Lutheran churches.  In fact the congregation where I grew up and the first two parishes that I have served as pastor have only had individual cups.  This is surprising for several reasons.  First, it is a practice that has its source in a completely foreign theology which does not confess the presence of the body and blood of Christ.  Second, it is a new practice that deviates from two thousand years of catholic practice in the Church.  Third, studies have shown that the chalice is not more prone to pass on illness because of the silver and gold of the chalice, the alcohol in the wine and the turning and wiping of the chalice.  At the same time, the fact that the lip of every individual cup has already been handled by those preparing the Sacrament (not to mention the fact that the plastic cup does not have the same preventive qualities) is often overlooked when people consider the individual cup to be more hygienic.

In response to the request from congregation members, Good Shepherd , Marion, IL will introduce the use of the chalice during this summer.  There are several reasons for this.  First, it corresponds to our Lord’s own practice when He instituted the Sacrament and avoids the ironic situation in which the pastor says, “In the same way also He took the cup after supper,” when in fact there is no single cup present at the altar. Second, it corresponds to the catholic practice of the Church which has used a common cup for two thousand years. Third, while the Sacrament is far more than a symbol, the use of a common cup does effectively convey the unity created by the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament. It is an important part of the ceremony of the liturgy – the movements by the pastor, the way the communion ware is handled, the vestments, paraments, candles, etc. The ceremony of the liturgy adorns the Means of Grace and sets them before us.  The use of a single cup communicates the truth of God’s Word that the Sacrament joins us together.  It is the Sacrament of unity.

We recognize that there will be congregation members who continue to have concerns about hygiene issues related to the use of the chalice.  For this reason Good Shepherd will continue to use individual cups in addition to adding the chalice.  The chalice will receive the primary role during the consecration, and then both chalice and individual cups will be used in distributing Christ’s blood.

[1] For an immensely helpful discussion of this and many other aspects of the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar in the history of the Church, see: Edward Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist (rev. and exp. edition; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008).


  1. "What God ordains is always good; His loving thought attends me.
    No poison can be in the cup that my Physicians sends me."

    TLH #521:3

  2. You note with regard to hygiene issues that each cup has already been touched by someone preparing for the Divine Service. Additionally, if the communicants take the cups out of the trays themselves, they likely touch at least one other cup. So there may be 3-4 people touching the individual cup that one person takes.

    The parish where I serve uses plastic individual cups (as well as a common chalice). People who set up and take down communion differ in their attention to detail and their piety. I am afraid some simply throw away the cups after they have been used to distribute the Blood of Christ. This seems to speak against the holiness of the Sacrament.

    I recognize that Jesus did not specify the varietal of wine, the type of vessels to use, the position (standing, kneeling, etc) in which one ought to receive the Sacrament. But all of these choices indicate (in part) our understanding of the Supper. How and when should we consider cost, convenience, hygiene, etc alongside the Word of Scripture or related theological concerns as we shape or change practices?

    Yet it is important to emphasize that even in individual cups, the Lord's Blood is the Lord's Blood. It does what He says just as much as it does from a common cup. Consciences should never be burdened by making them think that using the individual cup is "wrong". Many modern Lutherans have never experienced using the common cup. The individual cup is what is "normal" for them. I have begun a practice of communing new confirmands with the common cup, but thereafter allowing them to choose.

    Good to hear that the members of Good Shepherd will now have the option to share in the Supper by means of the chalice, while not burdening consciences by requiring this.

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  4. Thanks for a well written explanation. I would be curious to see a similar analysis of the trends of practice regarding the bread in Holy Communion. Most congregations I have been to distribute tiny, individual wafers and this practice seems to be unrelated to their use of common cup or individual cups - at least in my experience.
    Thanks again. - Andrew Jones

  5. Nice post, Mark. For those interested in this issue, you might find the following paper helpful.

  6. Andrew, In late antiquity churches normally used small round loaves marked with a cross. So even in this period there wasn't one loaf. During the ninth century there is a shift to unleavened bread. Around the same period there is an increase in private masses and decrease in the number of people actually communing. This is also the time when communicants begin to receive the Lord's body on the tongue instead of the hand. There is increased concern about accidents with bread crumbs. All of these factors combine to produce the small hosts we use today. I suppose while all can drink from one cup that is refilled, after the church moves out of a small house setting was often no longer possible for one loaf to provide for all.

    1. Your reply to Andrew's question suggests that historical and practical developments led to a change from a single loaf of bread to individual wafers. Given that the 1 Corinthians 10:17 speaks of "one bread" or "one loaf," why do you not consider this as equally important a sign of unity as the one cup?

  7. Jonathan, Thanks for sharing your paper. Very interesting! What was the setting for which you wrote it?

  8. Excellent! Have read Ernest Bartels book "Take Eat, Take Drink" several times. I would love to see new generations embrace the common cup.

  9. Dr. John Stephenson has a helpful essay as well:'s%20Supper.pdf