Communion from the Cup: From the Last Supper to Last Sunday


On the night before he died, Jesus said, “Take and eat.  This is my body.”  And they all took and ate.  Then taking the cup, he said, “Take and drink.  This is my blood.”

John drank from the cup.  James wiped the rim with his napkin and drank.  Thomas pressed the cup to his lips but didn’t really drink.  Andrew stood for a moment, genuflected, and then drank.  Jude looked surprised at Andrew, wiped the entire rim and drank cautiously.

Philip, having saved his bread, dipped it into the cup and swallowed it.  Peter drank a little through a straw.  Matthew drank and then made the sign of the cross.  The other James did not drink because the first James had a cold.  Bartholomew smiled with relief at the other James and passed the cup without drinking.  Judas emptied the cup.

There was none left for Simon the Zealot. 

All right, maybe it didn’t happen that way.  But watch communion at a typical Catholic parish and you’d have to wonder.

Communion under both forms has been offered to Catholic laity without interruption for 2000 years, but only in the East.  The Roman Rite withdrew the cup from the laity for centuries.  Now the cup is back.

The instructions from the Last Supper were plain: “Take and eat.  Take and drink.”  Jesus also said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53).  He did not say, “You can skip the blood part if you want and still have life within you.  It’s optional.”

The Roman Rite offered communion under both forms to all the baptized for over a thousand years.  Even infants shared communion under the form of wine.

By the ninth century, however, some began to deny the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Believers reacted strongly and even overreacted.  Feeling unworthy, people shared communion infrequently.  Fears of spilling the cup increased.  Communion was offered from a straw.  Intinction gained popularity.  People received communion in the mouth.  Infant communion declined.  Substitutes were offered – from unconsecrated bread to grapes.

By the twelfth century the purpose of mass had shifted from communion to adoration.  The elevation of the host appeared in the thirteenth century.  Theologians taught concomitance: the body and blood of Christ are present either in the consecrated bread or the cup.  By the fourteenth century, communion under both forms was rare in the West.

After the Protestant Reformers offered the cup to their faithful, the Council of Trent reaffirmed that communion of the laity under one form sufficed.  This legislation basically did not change from the sixteenth to the twentieth century.

In 1912, though, Pope Pius X permitted Roman Catholics to share communion under both forms at Eastern Catholic services.  The Second Vatican Council in 1965 (Sacrosanctum concilium, 55) and the 1969 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (242) permitted communion under both forms on a limited basis.

In 1970 the bishops of the United States permitted the new practice at daily mass.  In 1973 the church approved extraordinary lay ministers of holy communion.  So in 1978 the American bishops approved communion under both forms on Sundays and holydays as well – if the ordinary judged it could happen orderly and reverently.  In 1985 the bishops of the United States said, “Communion under both kinds is to be desired in all celebrations of the Mass” (“This Holy and Living Sacrifice,” 19).

Still, many Catholics seem unaware of their great privilege to share communion under both forms.  Squeamish of drinking from a cup with others, they pass it by.

Jesus made it simple at the Last Supper.  Eat my body.  Drink my blood.  We are privileged with the opportunity fully to partake.

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