Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lifting the Cup

In my last post I wrote about the “fraction,” that ritual act of breaking bread before the distribution of the meal to the people. It is seemly that its companion ritual act, the lifting of the cup, should receive similar consideration.

The breaking of the bread seems to draw the major amount of interest of scholars and others, while lifting the cup, overshadowed by the fraction, just tags along without much comment. Yet it does carry significance in its own right.

My Lutheran friend at the church I often attend, noted that, as is the case with the fraction, they do not lift the cup for fear of appearing to mimic the Lord himself, or having it look like the pastor is taking Jesus’ place. So for sure they would not hold the chalice up before the congregation while speaking the Words of Institution:
“In the same way he took the cup, saying:
This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood,
shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you drink it,
do this in remembrance of me.”

As much as I agree with the Lutherans on not stepping into the role of Jesus in a reproduction of an ancient event, there are reasons to hold the cup up before the congregation after the Eucharistic prayer and before the meal is served.

For one thing, presenting the chalice to the people with a clear liturgical gesture indicates that this is a common meal. As the presider holds the cup at eye level or a bit higher, it is an offering to all, a sharing with all.

This gesture, of course, exposes the inadequacy of individual semi-shot glasses. No presider would ever minimalize the sacrament by holding up a tiny glass in this presentation gesture. When passed around to the worshippers in trays, the individual cups individualize the sacrament, scaling it down to a one-at-a-time rather than communal event.

Lifting the cup not only suggests a common sharing of the wine, but would indicate that the best means is for all to drink from the same chalice. Furthermore, pouring wine from a pitcher or decanter into the common cup strengthens the visibility of the ritual act of lifting the cup before the congregation.

Even that ever-increasingly-popular mode called intinction, the dipping of the bread into the common cup, gives some support to the communal quality of the meal. If small cups are to be used, then at least they should be filled for the communicant at the table from a common pouring cup (one with a lip that makes it easy and neat to fill the small mini-shot in the worshipper’s hand).

What gives the lifting of the cup power is the fact that it presents the blood of Christ as the sign and seal of the New Covenant, not a past compact of God with the people, but a present gift. In “remembering” what Christ has done in the shedding of his blood, that gift of Christ becomes present, immediate and intimate to the worshippers. The covenant between God and our selves is new now, offered to all.

The presentation of the cup visibly, and reinforced with words, not the Words of Institution, but words such as those provided in the Book of Common Worship (1993), lend a simple but powerful gesture to the experience of the Lord’s Supper.

Is the chalice raised before the congregation at Communion in your church? What is said, if anything? How do the people take the elements: common cup, intinction, pouring into small cups, small cups in trays, other?


  1. Not transubstantian, not consubstantiation, not symbol signification, but 'real' presence of the time and times of Christ for us with His Father---by the Spirit of the Living God, in the Name of the Lord. No container notion of space and time grasps their service to the Lord God of His People in His Creation!

    Jack McKenna

  2. Yes, lifting the cup or chalice is significant; and it is done in the congregation I am now attending, as a retired pastor. It is accompanied by the appropriate portion of the Words of Institution here.

    However, as a pastor, I always have preferred the BCW option of using Paul's words, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ." Or even stating that positively, "The cup of blessing that we bless is a sharing in the blood of Christ."

    Not to major in minor details, but it should also be noted that the "way" in which the cup is raised has significance. To raise it with one hand almost has the appearance of drunken revelry. But both hands should be used -- the right hand holding the stem of the cup, and the fingers of the left hand underneath --both to balance the cup, and to serve as a kind of "throne" for it, giving the lifting a special dignity. Yet, pray for dignity and not "prissiness." It is possible to pay too much attention to this kind of thing.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!