Receiving From the Cup

Receiving from the cup involves a rich symbolism. It combines both the joy of a meal with the risen Lord as well as our entering into the sufferings by which we were redeemed.
[This article was originally published in Emmanuel – January/February 2012 issue]

In my childhood, way back when processions, novenas, and May altars were channels of faith expression, my sisters and I found it easy to follow our home May altar with the construction of a shrine to the Sacred Heart in June. But when July, with its dedication to the Precious Blood rolled around, we were at a loss. How could you image blood?

I was reminded of that frustration when I flipped through the pages of our community hymnal for a song to honor the precious blood. Almost all today’s eucharistic hymns highlight bread images. If any hymn mentions the cup, it is in the second, third or later verses, if at all. Upon reflection I surmised that this must be a carryover from the church’s nine-century history of non-distribution of the cup at Mass from the twelfth century on.1 Although communicants had received under the forms of both bread and wine for the better part of a millennium, in the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent (Session XXI, ch iii), devised a rational explanation for the current practice—aimed especially at those who insisted that there existed of a divine precept2 obliging the faithful to receive under both kinds:

By reason of the hypostatic union and of the indivisibility of his glorified humanity, Christ is really present and is received whole and entire, body and blood, soul and divinity, under either species alone; nor, as regards the fruits of the sacrament, is the communicant under one kind deprived of any grace necessary for salvation.

In that same session, with the Fathers preferring human reasoning to the command of Jesus, communion under both kinds was declared not only not obligatory on the faithful, but the chalice was forbidden by ecclesiastical law to any but the celebrating priest. The argument today seems convoluted, strikingly, even scarily legalistic, and thin on scriptural theology. Though Trent also allowed for the possibility of change in the future, such was never taken up until Vatican II.

The practice of communicating with both bread and cup has been sporadic in the parishes and even in some religious houses.

In our own era, the language and procedures of Vatican II were notably simpler, more heavily reliant on Scripture, and ecumenically accommodating. The movements initiated there continued and grew in succeeding decades. In June of 2001, the bishops of the U.S. issued a new statement regarding the distribution of the cup at Mass. Without reviving the original controversy involving the Reformers, it simply passed over the restriction of Trent:

The extension of the faculty for the distribution of holy communion under both kinds does not represent a change in the church’s immemorial beliefs concerning the holy Eucharist. Rather, today the church finds it salutary to restore a practice, when appropriate, that for various reasons was not deemed opportune when the Council of Trent was convened in 1545. But with the passing of time, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the reform of the Second Vatican Council has resulted in the restoration of a practice by which the faithful are again able to experience “a fuller sign of the eucharistic banquet. . .” (#21).

Since, by reason of the sign value, sharing in both eucharistic species reflects more fully the sacred realities that the liturgy signifies, the church in her wisdom has made provisions in recent years so that more frequent eucharistic participation with both the sacred host and the chalice of salvation might be made possible for the laity in the Latin Church. The American bishops, in 1978, further extended the provisions in the GIRM allowing communion under both species on weekdays, to include Sundays and holy days, a provision confirmed by Rome.

These developments notwithstanding, the practice of communicating with both bread and cup has been sporadic in the parishes and even in some religious houses. Trent’s heady teaching, delivered in traditions treasured from childhood, still dominate. In some cases, it is practical considerations that override the Lord’s command.3

To do justice to the question, it may be helpful to go back to some of the theology regarding the knowledge of Christ that was current during Vatican II. The renowned French council peritus, Ives Congar, O.P., in his book, Jesus Christ,4 reminds us of the authority of Jesus in all that he did. Father Congar taught that, unlike us who gather information in two ways, through our own personal human experience and by way of the wisdom of our ancestors, Jesus learned in three ways.

First, he definitely grew in his humanity and human knowledge, as we all do, through reflection on the world and his interaction with it. This experiential process, continued beyond his childhood and years in Nazareth into his teaching ministry, as can be seen in the questions he posed in his public life (cf. Mt 16:13; 7:9-11; 7:9-11; 6:26:32; 9:14-17; Lk 11:9-13; 5; 36-39; 8:16; 11:30, 15).

Second, like us, he also learned from the traditions passed down to him from his people. In his time, the main conduit of education was the Hebrew Scriptures. Although Jesus evidently lacked the professional training of the rabbis (cf. Jn 7:15), he astounded his listeners by the exceptional quality of his teaching (cf. Mt 7:28; Lk 2:47; Jn 7:46). Without doubt, either from his parents or from the schools associated with the synagogues, he had mastered the Scriptures that shaped his people. His prayer before beginning his ministry (cf. Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4: 1-13), his prayer before activities (Lk 2:25; Mk 1:35), just before the storm at Galilee (Lk 6:12), before choosing his disciples (Lk 9:18), in the garden before his crucifixion (cf. Mt 26:36, 39-42; Mk 14:32-42; Lk. 22:40-46), and on the cross (Mt 27:46), reflect the depth of his personal prayer and meditation.

The third channel of his education, however, was unique to himself as the divine Word of God. In this capacity, he received direct input, as it were, that is, infused knowledge of the highest register. What is more, the direct connection with divinity impacted on the other channels of his education. Father Congar states,

At the same time that the soul of Jesus was being enlightened by the knowledge which his Father directly communicated to him of his design of salvation, of the way to accomplish all that had been foretold, his soul was acquiring, through meditation, a deeper understanding of the texts which had spoken to him.5

For instance, notes Father Congar, Jesus was the first to read and understand the Scripture in reference to himself as the holy servant foretold by Isaiah.6

From these three rich veins Jesus was able to identify with relevance and authority “the dearest freshness deep down things”7 in a manner superior to all other poets and prophets in the world. It was thus that he was inspired to see that ordinary water was a most suitable medium of the Holy Spirit. In brief, whatever he did and ordained proceeded from the highest human authority and represented the very will of God.

It was in the institution of the Eucharist—the source and summit of the Christian life—that Jesus’ divine genius was most brilliantly employed.

It was in the institution of the Eucharist—the source and summit of the Christian life—that Jesus’ divine genius was most brilliantly employed. For this holiest of sacraments, he who had carefully prepared for the Last Supper, certainly with great deliberation beforehand (cf. Mt 26:17-18; Mk 14:12-15; Lk 22:7-13), chose two signs. The first, bread, the mainstay of human existence, was made to convey the presence of his own body. The significance of his choice was enhanced by his ancestors’ long memory of the unleavened cakes baked to save time in their hurried escape from the slavery of Egypt. The bread sign also carries the ancient life-saving importance of the manna in the desert. When Jesus named himself the bread of life (Jn 6:35, 48, 51), his title blended these meanings, richly enhancing his choice of bread for the celebration of the deepest of mysteries.

As a meal, the Eucharist was also to include drink, as human meals ordinarily do. That Jesus understood the social function of wine comes across clearly in the account of the wedding feast of Cana (Jn 2:1-12). He knew its power to create community, to engender joy and well-being, and to promise happiness in a new wedded commitment. He was cognizant of the prophecy of Isaiah, who portrays God as inviting us to “come, without paying and without cost, drink wine, . . . eat well, . . . delight in rich fare” (Isa 55:1-2). And he certainly understood the eschatological implications of that prophecy, the really good life that his life and death would make available to all. But his words at the Last Supper imply a further dimension. It was not the Passover cup taken at the beginning of the commemorative meal that he focused on. It was the fourth cup taken after the supper that Jesus endowed with new meaning: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be shed. . .” (Lk 22:20) The eucharistic celebration he offered as his supreme gift to his people was to be a sacrifice of adoration and thanksgiving expressed as a meal.

But there were added dimensions. Throughout the Scriptures, besides representing the good life, the cup stands for blood, regarded by the Jews as consonant with life itself. Behind it lay the long memory of salvation gained by the smearing of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of Egypt. And going back even farther to Abraham, it stood for the life-and-death-seriousness of God’s covenant with his chosen people. The significance of the ritual customary at that time in the making of formal agreements was that parties who violated the covenant promises would suffer the same fate as that of the slaughtered animals. Here, expressed in then contemporary ritual, was God’s agreement with his people. God himself under the sign of a mysterious flame passed between the bloody halves of animals slaughtered by Abraham to signify the incredible situation of a divine promise of fidelity to the agreement.

Then, again, when Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed animals upon the gathered congregation hundreds of years later, blood also served to signify union of the life of the people with their God. And throughout Scripture, the crushing of grapes evokes two antithetical images: that of salvation and fullness, as well as death—the “cup” also calling to mind suffering endured for love, climaxing in the anguished cry of Jesus: “Let this cup pass from me” (Mt 26:39; Mk 14:36; Lk 22:42).”

The crushing of grapes evokes two antithetical images: that of salvation and fullness, as well as death.

At the Last Supper, the most poignant moment of relationship with his chosen followers, Jesus memorialized his saving death by decreeing that the ritual he was instituting involve a second sign along with the bread. It was to be the drinking of a cup of wine, a sign of the blood spilled out as the dire cost of his purchasing the intoxicating joy of eternal life for his followers.

What rich associations, then, does the cup have, instituted as it was by the divine genius of Jesus at the will of his Father. In it we are taken up into the sacrifice of the divine Paschal Lamb slain for his people. We are renewed by the remembrance of so costly a love. The words of the ritual, derived straight from the Scriptures, include all the participants, not only the celebrant: (cf. Mt 26:27: “Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them. ‘All of you must drink from it,’ he said. . . .”; Mk 14:23: “He likewise took a cup, gave thanks and passed it to them, and they all drank from it.” See also Lk 22:17, 20). This is highlighted in every celebration in the words of consecration: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me” (Mt 26:27-28).

Praise the Lord that in our times the ritual has been restored! May the people of God continue to grow in appreciation of the exquisite creativity and bountiful generosity of God.


1 See Catholic Encyclopedia, “Communion Under Both Kinds,” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04175a.htm. Actually, in some places, communion continued to be given under both species for those few who communicated. It was only officially forbidden to the laity by the Council of Constance in its 13th session, June, 1415.

2 Part of the argument of the reformers also rested on denial of the Real Presence. See Catholic Encyclopedia, op.cit.

3 For instance, in their over concern with contamination, many Americans disdain reception from the cup for hygienic reasons. Citizens from countries like Korea and Brazil, where my community serves, have not been overly sensitized by the fear-inducing commercials of television.

4 Tr. Luke O’Neill, NY: Herder and Herder, 1960; originally Les Editions du Cerf, Paris, 1965.

5 Congar, 61-62.

6 Ibid.

7 Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., “God’s Grandeur,” 1918.


About Sr. M. Loretta Pastva, SND

Sr. Loretta is a Sister of Notre Dame of the Chardon, OH province. She has taught and written textbooks for high school and trained adult catechists both in this country as well as in Korea. She has also produced histories of dioceses across the U.S. and of her congregation’s African missions.