Sometimes on the altar, you may see something like a chalice with a lid and a cross on top. It often gets put into the tabernacle, along with a shallow, golden bowl that also has a flat and tight-fitting cover.
Both are ciboria, the altar vessels that hold the consecrated hosts of the Blessed Sacrament.
The chalice-like, lidded vessel is of a style more common before the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council, but once which is again being seen more today. While this style of ciborium is similar in appearance to a chalice, its bowl is rounder since it is not constructed to hold liquids.
The word “ciborium” comes from questionable roots. Some scholars say it is from a Latin word for food: “cibus.” Others say it is from the Greek kirorion for cup. This Greek word refers to a vessel sometimes made from the large, circular seed pod of the Egyptian lotus blossom. The form of these pods was often imitated in ancient artisans in making decorative cups.
Ciboria can also be quite large — and often were in centuries past — too large for a tabernacle. In fact, in the early Middle Ages, “the ciborium” meant the canopy that suspended over the altar and supported by four pillars. A smaller receptacle for the Blessed Sacrament hung from this canopy. Sometimes this receptacle resembled a dove. This preceded development of the box-like tabernacle we see in sanctuaries today.
The “Encyclopedia Britannica” notes that the word “ciborium” was soon transferred from the canopy to the vessel under it. The canopy itself soon became known as the “baldacchin” (from the Latin name for the city of Baghdad, which also explains the Middle Eastern decorations on many baldachins.) A famous baldachin can be seen over the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Baldacchin also became the term for the portable canopy carried over the Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic processions, especially for the feast of Corpus Christi (the Body and Blood of Christ, celebrated in the United States and Rome this year on June 18).
Whether chalice-like in shape or more of a dish, all ciboria must be made of quality materials. Most often this is gold or silver with gold on the inside where the consecrated hosts rest. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, “sacred vessels may also be made from other solid materials which in the common estimation in each region are considered precious or noble, for example, ebony or other harder woods, provided that such materials are suitable for sacred use. In this case, preference is always to be given to materials that do not easily break or deteriorate” (n. 329).
The taller, chalice-like ciboria are often covered with a white or gold veil, sometimes made of silk, when resting in the tabernacle. These vessels, unlike the dish-style ciboria, should be over six inches in height and have a raised bump in the base of the bowl to make it is easier to remove the hosts.
When a ciborium of either style is moved from the tabernacle to the altar or back, it should always be covered. It has long been recommended that there be at least two ciboria in a tabernacle, so that the newly consecrated hosts do not become mingled with hosts from a previous Mass.
Keeping the Blessed Sacrament reserved has always been a tradition of the church, so that ready access to the Eucharist is available for the sick. This was the case for early Christians, even before there were formal church buildings.
In those earliest days, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in homes. The Blessed Sacrament (in the form of the consecrated bread) was kept in homes also — in jars or baskets set in places of honor. The first Christians wanted to keep the sacrament near them, both for the sick and dying, as well as for when they themselves felt the need for strengthening. (Remember that there were many persecutions of the early church.)
In the fourth century, after the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.), Christians were allowed to have separate church buildings. Then the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in various receptacles in those churches, eventually leading to the familiar tabernacle. (Today, we can also see the pyx — a small vessel that holds a few consecrated hosts to be taken to the sick — kept in the tabernacle with the ciboria.)
Adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament became common in the 12th century, when elevation of the consecrated host and chalice became part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass. Also around this time, people began receiving Communion less frequently. By 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council had to require the faithful to receive the Eucharist at least once a year.
There was also an increasing interest in Christ’s humanity, especially his human suffering. Time spent in devotion before the Blessed Sacrament became a preferred form of contemplation. The Forty Hour devotions also developed; these ended with benediction — the blessing of those present with the host.
Later in the 13th century, a specific feast centered on the Eucharist began, following the visions of St. Juliana of Liege, France. This feast of Corpus Christi became universal in the church in 1264. The colorful, outdoor Eucharistic processions — complete with a baldachin and a monstrance for carrying the large host — did not begin for another dozen years or so. This procession tradition, started in Cologne, spread across Europe and was finally approved as a liturgical event in the 15th century. It continues to this day.
Sources: “General Instruction of the Roman Missal”; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; newliturgicalmovement.org; fisheaters.com; “Encyclopedia Britannica”; ewtn.com; “The New Dictionary of Theology”; “Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; “Dictionary of Catholic Devotions”; “The Dictionary of New Sacramental Worship”; and “Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History.”