When the new English translation of the missal debuted at the beginning of Advent 2011, the U.S. Catholic bishops explained the use of new words or terms this way: “In addition, the experience of the years after the Second Vatican Council gave rise to a desire for more formal and literal translations of the original Latin texts.”
“Chalice” is a more formal translation than “cup.”
What exactly, though, do these two words translate? The Latin word “calix” translates as “chalice.” When St. Jerome was correcting various early Latin translations of the Gospels into the Latin Vulgate (382-405 A.D.) he used the word “calix” for referring to the cup Jesus blessed at the Last Supper. The Greek version of “calix” is “kalix.” There is a similar word in Greek “kalyx,” which gives us the word “calyx” for the bud of a plant formed by its sepals, and the words “calyx” and “calix” are sometimes interchanged.
Now Jerome knew how to speak and to write Greek, Latin and Hebrew. He also knew that the word used in the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament for the cup at the Last Supper was “pot?rion.” This Greek word is multi-faceted, since it refers to both a vessel and to its contents (as in “potable” water). Bishop Donald Trautman, retired bishop of Erie, Pa., was a Scripture scholar before being ordained a bishop. In a 2009 lecture on the new missal, he noted how the Gospels used the word “pot?rion” to mean a cup or a drinking vessel. “Did Jesus at the Last Supper use a precious chalice or a cup?” Bishop Trautman asked. “The Gospels clearly say “cup.” The bishop went on to say that Jerome used “calyx” but used the word in the sense that Latin dictionaries still use it: as a “cup, goblet, drinking vessel.”
Likewise, Jesuit Fr. John R. Donahue, a retired professor of New Testament, said Jerome didn’t mean to refer to an ornate “chalice” either.
“When St. Jerome translated the New Testament from Greek to Latin, he chose the Latin term calix (from which ‘chalice’ derives) to translate pot?rion, but he did not intend it to mean a liturgical vessel,” Fr. Donahue wrote in Commonweal in June 2012. “In both the secular Latin of the time and in Jerome’s translation of the Scriptures, the term calix meant primarily an ordinary drinking cup.”
So Jesus clearly took a regular drinking cup from the table. And, while we know this cup wasn’t the gold-plated chalice style of today, we don’t really know what it looked like. Cups of the first century Middle East could have been made of many materials, from stone to an early form of glass.
However, as Loyola Press emphasized in a series on the Roman Missal, “Choosing the word chalice instead of cup emphasizes that this vessel is no ordinary cup. Indeed, it highlights the sacrificial character of this vessel which holds the precious blood of Jesus Christ, shed for us out of love.”
That more than anything else, helps us understand why we now say “chalice” instead of “cup.” As far as our sharing in it, it’s a cup, a communal drinking vessel. As far as how precious it is to us — because of what it holds — it is a glorious, royal chalice.
Sources: Commonweal; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; loyalapress.com; Our Sunday Visitor newsweekly; and ncronline.com.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.