Holy Thursday: The Words He Chose

In grading college essays, there are certain phrases that I pen so frequently, in red ink, that I’ve considered having them put onto a rubber stamp, to save myself from writing them repeatedly. For example, “The relative pronoun for people is ‘who’ or ‘whom.’ ‘That’ is for inanimates.” Or “The adverbs ‘really,’ ‘actually,’ and ‘just’ almost never add anything to a sentence; consider removing them. Or, my favorite, “The adverbs ‘now’ and ‘well’ are used in conversation at the beginning of a sentence in order to gain time to think, but this activity should occur before one begins writing.”

It’s just as well that I don’t have a rubber stamp in red ink, because it would have been hard for me not to use it in the margins of our newly translated Third Eucharistic Prayer. I’d want it to insert, “Avoid repeating a word or phrase too quickly, especially when a pronoun will serve.” Why is the word “chalice” rapidly repeated three times? Isn’t that why God gave us pronouns?


When the new translation was first launched, a priest acquaintance told me that he would refuse to use the word “chalice” in place of “cup.” “It’s nothing less than a clericalization of the liturgy,” he said, and quickly added, “And I’m not going to say ‘for the many!’” The latter replaces ‘for all’ in the new edition of the Roman Missal, referring to the shedding of Christ’s blood.

Is “chalice” a clericalization of the liturgy, a step back from ecumenism, or is it simply a search for a more sacral, transcendent idiom? Hard to say. The Latin calix, which it translates, doesn’t immediately have a sacral connotation. It certainly can be rendered as “cup,” and the same is true of the Greek word poterion which the New Testament itself employs.

One argument for “chalice” rather than “cup” might be the nature of the meal that Jesus celebrated the night before he died. It was certainly no ordinary supper, though the deep fellowship that it expressed can only be appreciated when one remembers that the Gospel record Jesus often eating with his followers. In fact, he was criticized by some Jewish leaders for offering table fellowship to those who had no right to it, because their sins had made them outcasts of Israel.

Scholars continue to debate the question, which divergent accounts in the New Testament raise, about whether or not this Last Supper of Jesus was a Passover Feast. (It is in the synoptic gospels, but not in John.) There seem to be very good reasons to believe that it was, so the cup — sorry chalice — that Jesus would have raised at the end of the meal certainly did have a sacral character. It was a “cup of blessing” because its purpose was to recall and praise the very goodness of God.

Indeed, simply to serve wine was an unusual feature of this meal, unless of course it was a Passover Feast. Wine was a luxury for the Jews of Palestine, so much so that historians believe that some of the first Christian Eucharists may well have been celebrated using bread alone — under one form as we say today — simply because wine couldn’t always be obtained. That might be an explanation behind a frequent New Testament title for the Eucharist, “The Breaking of the Bread.” (See Lk 24: 35, Acts 2: 42, 2:46, 20:7)

In any event, a close examination of all our New Testament witnesses to that night — Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — puts the emphasis, not upon the utensil employed, certainly not upon its name, but upon its contents. Jesus immediately draws attention to the red wine that would have been used for the Passover ritual. Beneath the Greek words body (soma) and blood (haima) lie the Aramaic words that Jesus probably used, which are most accurately translated, “flesh and blood.” For those who heard him, they would have immediately brought to mind what it means to be human, a creature of flesh and blood, and also the Passover Lamb itself, whose flesh and blood are separated by the act of sacrifice. As the historian Joachim Jeremias put it in his now-classic The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, “Its meaning is quite simple. Each one of the disciples could understand it. Jesus made the broken bread a simile of the fate of his body, the blood of the grapes a simile of his outpoured blood. ‘I go to death as the true Passover sacrifice,’ is the meaning of Jesus’ last parable” (224).

And Jesus did shed his blood for all of us. “For the many” is our new, literal English translation of the Latin pro multis and behind that is the Greek New Testament polloi. Both can both be literally translated as “for the many” but the Hebrew notion that likely would have been in the mind of Jesus was rabbim, which means “many” as opposed to “few.” Jeremias writes, “The ‘for many’ of the Eucharistic words is...not exclusive (‘many, but not all’), but, in the Semitic manner of speech, inclusive (‘the totality, consisting of many’). The Johannine tradition interprets it this way, for in its equivalent to the bread-word it paraphrases ‘for many’ as ‘for the life of the world (Jn 6:51).” Sadly, this is a case where hewing closer to the Latin obfuscates the intention of Jesus, at least as we hear it translated into the English of our new version.

If nothing else, our recently inaugurated English translation of the liturgy reminds all of us of a truth that I attempt to press upon undergraduates: words matter. Unlike the angels, we have no other way of sharing ourselves with others than the gestures and the words that we use. How wonderful that we can still trace back, through multiple editions, manuscripts, and languages the words he chose that night to tell us that everything he had or was, his very flesh and blood, would be given, like the Passover Lamb, for our salvation and that of the many.

Rev. Terrance W. Klein


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6 years 9 months ago
The cup used in the Passover seder contains wine from start to finish of the four blessings. The blessing is directed to God, or as a Jew would say G-d, as "ruler of the universe and creator of the fruit of the vine." There is no suggestion that the contents of the cup are especially sacred. Jesus' act changed the contents. I would think that, in strictly Catholic terms, He took the cup "filled with the fruit of the vine" and gave it (or "the cup," if you must) to His disciples, saying... "this is the chalice of My blood..."

I think that is exactly what the Church teaches in its thology, isn't it? It's important that we get these things (pro multis, too) right, and I do not think we are currently doing so.
Jan Rogozinski
6 years 8 months ago

You write, "The relative pronoun for people is ‘who’ or ‘whom.’ ‘That’ is for inanimates."
Folk like you are why Johnny and Joanna can't read.

There is no such rule in the English language. There never has been. Ever. At any period since Anglo-Saxon times.

The rule for relative pronouns is: restrictive, use that; non-restrictive, use which. I.e., if the relative phrase or clause is needed for the sentence to have a meaning, use that. If it is not needed for the meaning, use which.

As in "The house that I so much wanted to buy had just been sold the day before." restrictive. Versus "I was a student at Jesuit U, which was painted black 20 years ago." nonrestrictive.

It is absolutely, totally, and 100% correct English idiom to say "The man that came to dinner last night is a Jesuit." One might say "who," but the gramatically correct "that" gives the reader/hearer useful information."

My other favorite barbarism is the current rule that one must always break infinites. In fact, one should almost never break compound verbs of any kind. "I often have eaten at Joe's restaurant, which has good food" is clearer than "I have often at Joe's restaurant eaten. And the prose rhythm is more agreeable and idiomatic.

Yes, teach, every language has a natural prose rhythm that you are ignoring with your incorrect and absurd "rules." If you and I were to go to France, Italy, or German even if our sentences were grammatically correct, no one would take us for natives because our prose rhythm sometimes would not be what is natural and idiomatic for that language.  When spoken and written correctly, English also has a natural rythym.

The horror is that you may teach in a lower grade. If so, when and if your student run into a teacher that speaks and teaches English grammar, the student will already be so illiterate that no progress will be possible.


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