Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Deacon and the Chalice

Nick asked about a statement in one of my books on the diaconate in which I refer to the ancient association of the deacon with the chalice (cup) used at Mass to hold the offering of wine which will become the Blood of Christ. We can still see evidence of this at several times during the Mass: it is the deacon who pours wine into the chalice and then adds a few drops of water to it and hands it to the priest; the deacon elevates the chalice while the priest elevates the Host at the Concluding Doxology; the deacon often (but not exclusively) ministers the chalice to the people at communion; and the deacon purifies the chalice after communion.

The evidence of this close association goes back almost to the beginning of Christian writing, but I'm not aware of any particular rationale for it, other than the role of the deacon at Mass was -- and is -- one of assistance to the bishop/priest. If the priest was busy with the host and paten, the deacon took charge of the chalice. The legend of St. Lawrence, the deacon of Rome who died in the 3rd century, contains a reference to the deacon's responsibility for the chalice, and most liturgical books of the middle ages continue this. (The image to left even shows Lawrence with the Book of the Gospels (also a prime responsibility of the deacon, and a chalice.)

In some medieval liturgical documents, the priest steps to the altar and offers the bread, and then the deacon steps forward and offers the wine; eventually, however, the deacon began offering the chalice "in the name of the priest", and finally, the priest offered both the host and the chalice, with the deacon holding the chalice as he did so. In the revised liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, the deacon again elevates the chalice, as I mentioned above.

Again, I know of no good solid THEOLOGICAL reason for this association; certainly I can find nothing in the patristic and medieval literature. Perhaps some of our fellow bloggers and visitors here can help us out with references.

I know this may strike some as a lot of attention to something rather minor in the scheme of things! However, Christians (especially Catholic Christians) have always held that "the way we pray is the way we believe" so liturgical actions are much more than simply "putting on a show"! At the same time, we never want to get so caught up in the details that we forget the primary purpose of Christian worship in the first place: to proclaim the Good News and to celebrate that good news in the worship of God by joining ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ and offering ourselves to God in love and service.

Hope this helps, Nick!

God bless,



  1. Bill---Your readers might like to know of a book titled: "St Laurence-- The Holy Grail-- the story of the Holy Chalice of Valencia" by Janice Bennett. The book appears well-researched and tells the story of how Deacon Lawrence came to have custody of the authentic Holy Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper). It explains how Deacon Lawrence got the chalice out of Rome during persecution and how it wound up in a monastery in the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain and finally in the Cathedral of Valencia, Spain where it is today. (Valencia claims St. Lawrence was born there).
    The book really highlights the relationship between St. Lawrence and the Grail and by extension with all deacons.

  2. I agree with your point about getting wrapped up in details. But As newly ordained two months ago this very question has come up regularly. I am frequently asked why I minister the Blood instead of the Body. That question is often rooted in a perception of the Body being more important than the Cup - plenty of room for catechesis and discussion there. But this connection between the Deacon and the Chalice does deserve at least some foundational explanation. It would not be enough to offer "that's just the way we do it" because it is truly more than that.

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  4. I realize that 6 months is ancient history in internet terms but I thought you might be interested in some background on the image of St. Lawrence. I executed this particular work for my formation class (ordained June, 7 2008) after we had formally recognized St. Lawrence as our patron.
    He is depicted with his usual attributes of the grid-iron and martyr's palm as well as the Book of Gospels (service to the Word), the cup (service to the sacrament) and figures that represent his ministry of charity. The coat of arms in the lower right corner represents the Sacramento Diocese while the one in the upper right is the (unofficial?) symbol of the Diaconate.
    At the time I painted this I was reading the book Deacon John mentions and so the cup depicted is the Holy Chalice of Valencia.
    A better version of the image may be seen here.