One of the sweetest ladies I know asked me a question the other day that had been bothering her for a very long time. It was one of those questions that you don’t exactly know how to ask—much less, who to ask.
“I’ve been noticing something at daily Mass,” she began very timidly, as sweet older ladies do. “And it only happens at daily Mass,” she explained, “when we drink from the priest’s chalice.”
“I know Father doesn’t mean to, and I don’t blame him. I’m sure it’s only an accident, you see.” She hesitated getting to her main point.
“There’s always a bit of—uh. In the chalice, there’s always a bit of—how do I say?”
“Jesus?” I asked, saving her the trouble. “There’s always a bit of the host in the chalice?”
“Yes!” She said. “How did you know? Is it common for priests to backwash?”
“Backwash?!” I said, and I couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh no! The host places a piece of the host in the chalice on purpose. And it’s only at daily Mass, it seems–since you don’t need the whole Sunday Mass set of chalices–that everybody drinks from the priest’s chalice.”
So why does the priest place a piece of the host in his chalice?
First off, did you know the word “host” is taken from the Latin word hostia which means “victim”? We literally, then, eat the “victim” at Mass.
The “Fraction” Rite
So, let’s begin with why the host is “fractioned” in the first place. As you’ve probably noticed, the priest has one large host that’s perforated. The priest then breaks this into smaller pieces—into “fractions.” But why?
This comes straight from the Gospels. In the accounts of the Last Supper, Jesus “took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to [the apostles]” (cf. Luke 22:19). And again, 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 Sacrament of the Eucharist is often called “the Breaking of the Bread” for just this reason (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1329).
“Commingling” Since the Beginning
“Commingling: the celebrant drops a part of the host into the chalice” (GI 56d; Rubr.)
The above-quoted General Instruction of the Roman Missal (affectionately called the GIRM, as in “germ”) doesn’t tell us why this is, however. Fortunately, there are quite a few ancient and very interesting sources that do tell us quite a lot about this part of the Mass.
I quoted from Luke and the first century above, so now I’ll quote from the second century–from Justin Martyr. Isn’t it amazing how everything we do as Catholics, down to the smallest crumb, literally, is an unbroken tradition back to the very beginning?.
Justin Martyr was born around 100 AD, converted to Christianity ca. 130 AD, and thereafter became a great apologist for the fledgling Church. Justin and six of his companions were tortured and beheaded ca. 165 AD by the Roman prefect Junius Rusticus because they would not sacrifice to the Roman idols. Rusticus, by the way, was a teacher of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Emperor actually wrote about Rusticus in his famous work of philosophy, the Meditations, claiming that Rusticus was his most important teacher. God help him! Anyway, it was at the hands of this Rusticus that Justin became Justin Martyr.
In his First Apology, Justin Martyr first describes the Eucharist, itself: “the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (see Chapter 66). Notice, by the way, that the Church has been teaching transubstantiation since the beginning.
Justin Martyr then describes “commingling” as part of the ritual of the sacrament:
As we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (From Chapter 67, “Weekly Worship of the Christians”)
Justin Martyr says the Eucharist is “distributed to each” and also a “participation of that over which thanks have been given,” that is, the bread and wine consecrated by the priest. The priest added a portion of his unleavened bread to the chalice, which would have been shared by the entire assembly. There it is: commingling since the beginning!
Horizontal & Vertical “Commingling”
Like the Cross, itself, the tradition of commingling was formed from horizontal and vertical traditions. These were born in early Roman Masses, especially those presided over by the Pope (as described in Johannes H. Emminghaus’ The Eucharist: Essence, Form, and Substance, p. 198-199).
In Rome, a part of the host from the previous Mass, called the sancta, was placed in the chalice before Communion. This was done to represent the historical-vertical unity of the one sacrifice of the Mass: that each Mass traces all the way back to the Cross and the Last Supper.
Also, the Pope would send portions of the Eucharist—called the fermentum—from his own Masses to his Roman titular priests, which they add to the Sacred Blood at the Masses in their own parishes. This was meant to represent the local-horizontal unity of the Mass.
So, to answer the dear sweet lady who asked the question in the first place: “No, the priest didn’t backwash.” The priest was just participating in an ancient ritual, every gesture of which is significant of Christ. Rest assured, sweet lady!
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