Father Answers Your Questions

Question Why is a piece of the host placed into the chalice?

Answer:  Thank you for the question.  Father Robert Marshall, Pastor, Church of the Ascension, in July 22, 2004, when he addressed a similar question from a teenager, "Why does the priest break off a portion of the bread and place it into the cup just before communion is distributed?"  Father Marshall wrote the following:

The rite you are describing is called "commingling" and dates back to at least the eighth century and, indeed, has its origin in a rite that is even more ancient.  In the Eucharistic prayer, bread and wine are consecrated and become the Body and Blood of Christ.  According to the ancient tradition of the Church, the bread used for the Eucharist is unleavened.  It is generally baked into small round forms called "hosts."  The word "host" is taken from the Latin word hostia which means "victim."  We are reminded that Jesus Christ is the paschal victim the Lamb of God slain for us whose sacrifice is re-presented in our Eucharistic celebration.

After consecration, the host now the body of Christ is broken.  The breaking of the bread also called the "fraction" rite is very important since it is described in the gospels.  In the accounts of the Last Supper, Jesus "took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to [the apostles]." (Luke 22:19).  Later, the risen Christ was recognized "in the breaking of the bread" by the disciples whom he encountered on the road to Emmaus.  (Luke 24:25).  The Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist, was often referred to as "the Breaking of the Bread" in the early Church because of the prominent descriptions of the rite in the New Testament (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1329).

Originally, there was only one Eucharistic celebration in each city on Sunday.  The entire Christian community gathered together with an apostle or one appointed in his place (a bishop).  As Christianity spread, it became physically impossible for all to gather for one celebration different Masses began to be celebrated throughout the area.  The presider was one appointed to this task by the bishop a presbyter or priest.  To maintain the connection to the bishop's liturgy, a small portion of the host consecrated by the bishop was taken to each of the other Eucharistic celebrations over which priests were presiding.  This fraction was mingled with into the chalice a precursor to the "commingling" rite we celebrate today.

Gradually, the liturgical practices of the churches in the East began to take on a slightly different character from those of the West creating differences which exist to this day.  One of the most visible of these distinctions is the manner in which communion is distributed.  In Orthodox Churches and in Eastern Rite Catholic Churches communion is most often distributed by immersing all of the consecrated bread (leavened, in this case) into the chalice with the consecrated wine.  The faithful approach the Eucharistic minister and receive communion under both species deposited directly into the communicant's mouth by means of a spoon.

The liturgy of the Western church retains the symbolism of the commingling in a less elaborate form.  In our liturgy, no longer do we receive a fraction of the bishop's host for each celebration.  Nor do we immerse all of the consecrated bread into the chalice in the custom of the East.  Instead, as you have noticed, the priest (or bishop) breaks off a small fraction of the larger host used at that particular Mass and places it into the chalice saying quietly (inaudibly) as he does so: "May this mingling of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it." Just as the fraction of the host the paschal Lamb of God symbolizes the death of the Lord, so the commingling rite symbolizes the Lord's resurrection.  In death, body and blood are often separated in life they are united.

As you may have noticed, our liturgy is filled with symbols large and small.  Each one adds a richness to our celebration.  Too often, however, we overlook these little gestures and their meaning passes us by.  When one arrives at liturgy expecting to be dazzled by the obvious, it is easy to understand how our celebrations can seem boring we rarely hit people over the head with our symbols.  But when one takes the time to explore the meaning behind a particular word, phrase, or gesture, then it is difficult to imagine how anyone could be bored with the magnificence of our liturgy.  Thank you for the question.

St. Patrick's Church at Moody Air Force Base