Six months after the imposition of the new English edition of the Roman Missal, the volume of dissatisfaction has moderated. People seem resigned to the wooden and literal translations (“people of good will,” “enter under my roof”), archaic vocabulary (“dewfall,” “consubstantial,” “oblation”), and inflated language of prayer (“holy and unblemished,” “graciously grant,” “paying their homage”). Such language, so different from the plainspoken words of Jesus in prayer and parable, is in contrast to the directive of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II: “In this restoration [of the liturgy], both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.” We have also become accustomed to hearing presiders stumble over the convoluted syntax of the prayers and watching them hurriedly turning pages as they wend their way through the labyrinthine new missals. Yet, there is one new expression that involves a significant translation error with serious implications for a proper understanding of the Last Supper as a Passover meal, along with implications for continued Jewish-Christian understanding. In the final analysis, it enshrines poor pastoral theology in the Sunday liturgy.


“Traduttore, Traditore”

All translators are familiar with the caution that translations often distort or even betray the nuances of the original language. This is dramatically true in the substitution of the term “chalice” for “cup” in the words of institution in the Eucharistic prayer from the 1970 missal approved by Pope Paul VI:

When supper was ended he took the cup [chalice].
Again he gave you thanks and praise,
Gave the cup
[chalice] to his disciples, and said:

Take this, all of you and drink from it;
This is the cup [chalice] 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.

In the Greek original of all the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper, after the blessing of the bread, Jesus takes a cup (potērion) and says that this is the blood of the new covenant (Mark and Matthew), or “this cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke) and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25). Though Hellenistic Greek had a word—kylix (the basis of the Latin calix)—that suggests a larger ceremonial vessel often used in religious rites, the New Testament authors chose potērion, the normal term for an ordinary drinking cup in daily life.

When St. Jerome translated the New Testament from Greek to Latin he chose the Latin term calix (from which “chalice” derives) to translate potērion, but he did not intend it to mean a liturgical vessel. 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. In Matt 10:42 Jesus says, “And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” While the original Greek has potērion for “cup” of cold water, the Latin translation reads “calicem aquae frigidae.” Given the context it would be absurd to translate this “a chalice of cold water.” Similarly, to translate “my cup overflows” in Psalm 23:5 (Vulgate 22:5) as “my chalice overflows” would be ludicrous.

Although there were early translations of the Bible into English beginning with Venerable Bede, John Wycliffe (1328–84) is credited with the first complete translation of the Latin Vulgate, and here the translation of Jesus’ action over the wine (Matt 27:26) reads “And he took the cuppe,” while the earliest English translation of Mark 14:23 from the Greek, by William Tyndale (1494–1536), reads, “And he toke the cup gave thankes and gave it to them.” Simply put, in neither Jerome’s translation of the Greek into Latin nor early translations of the Latin into English nor the early Greek translations into English was “chalice” treated as a proper translation of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. “Chalice” was first substituted for “cup” in the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation from the Latin (1582–1609), where it functioned as a post-Tridentine marker of Catholicism against Protestantism—a role it may again assume.


The Last Supper as a Passover Meal

The words of Jesus shape the context of our Eucharistic liturgy today. Jesus sends his disciples to find a place where “I may eat the Passover with my disciples” (Mark 14:12–14). The narrative of Jesus at table with the disciples is portrayed by the evangelists as a Passover meal that highlights clear elements of the traditional Jewish Passover celebration (see 1 Cor 5:7, “Christ our Paschal lamb has been sacrificed”). Though no mention is made of the central act of eating the sacrificial lamb, the blessing, breaking, and eating of the bread and the blessing and drinking of the wine have clear parallels in the Jewish feast. Again of particular concern is the rendering of potērion as “chalice.” The key point is that the liturgy describes Jesus after the supper taking a cup, giving it to the disciples, and saying,

“Take this, all of you and drink from it;
This is the cup [chalice] of my blood.”

Though scholars differ about certain details, we know the Jewish celebration of Passover involved prayers and blessings over four cups of wine, two drunk before or during the main course and two after the meal. The third cup, “the cup of blessing” after the meal, is the cup in our Eucharistic prayers today, “when supper was ended.” St. Paul notes explicitly that it was “after the meal” (1 Cor 11:24) and earlier writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).

The cup that Jesus drank after the meal therefore evokes memories of the Jewish Passover ritual. To call this cup a “chalice” disguises the relation of the Christian Eucharist to an anamnesis (enacted memorial) of the Paschal Meal celebrated by the Jewish Jesus as he approached his suffering and death. The events surrounding the Passion of Jesus have caused great difficulties and sorrow in Jewish-Christian relations. The suppression of the memory of the Jewishness of Jesus in the Christian Eucharist is another example of “de-Judaizing” Jesus, and will erect another barrier to appreciation of our Jewish heritage, to mutual understanding, and to a proper liturgical catechesis.


Challenges to Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care

Among the achievements of the Second Vatican Council, especially in the Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation (Dei verbum), was a renewed focus on Scripture as, in St. Jerome’s words, “the soul of theology.” In the life of the church, people were encouraged to “gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it is through the liturgy, rich in the divine Word or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids” (emphasis mine). In the apostolic constitution Missale Romanum (1969), Pope Paul VI noted that the “formulas of consecration have been restored to a purer form reflective of the biblical sources” (Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948–1975). In the decades since the council, through exposure to the liturgy in the vernacular and through opportunities at all levels for deepening knowledge of Scripture, Catholics have become a Bible-reading, Bible-praying church. The traditional representation of the book as the symbol of Protestantism and of the chalice as a symbol of Catholicism had virtually disappeared. Is it now making a comeback?

The introduction of the English word “chalice” at the most solemn moment of the liturgy not only obscures the original biblical and historical context of the event but also evokes an image of Jesus that distances him from the disciples of his own day and of ours. In contemporary English a “chalice” is a liturgical vessel, and people are likely to think of gold or jewel-encrusted chalices found in museums or seen in artistic portrayals. At the Last Supper, Jesus was a Jewish layman using the drinking cups of the world around him, which were to bear the deepest mystery of his life. “Chalice” obscures this transformation of the ordinary by the power of God and distances the celebration from the lives of the participants. Indeed in the new translation of the Roman Missal, the priest says “This is the chalice of my blood,” but one of the optional responses for the people is, “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord, until you come again.” Chalices are for priests; cups for laypeople. This suggests a return to the understanding of a priest as a sacral person separated from the community rather than offering the Eucharist as a member of “the Body of Christ.” Finally, I often celebrate liturgy among parents who, like many others, are instructing young children in the meaning of the Mass. They have told me that some of the arcane language in the new translations has made their efforts to explain what Jesus was doing at the Last Supper more difficult. The reference to a “chalice” has proven especially confusing.

Throughout history changes in the liturgy arose from the faith and practice of the people (“from below”) and from decisions of church leaders (“from above”). I can only hope that “cup” will again rise up to replace “chalice.”

Read more: Letters, August 17, 2012

Related: It Doesn't Sing, by Rita Ferrone
Lost in Translation, by John Wilkins

John R. Donahue, SJ, is the Raymond E. Brown Professor (Emeritus) of New Testament Studies at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, Maryland, and Research Professor in Theology at Loyola College, Maryland.
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Published in the 2012-06-01 issue: View Contents
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