The Lay Chalice

Coincidentally, developments in Prague over that summer gave the Hussite movement a symbol around which reformers across the spectrum could unite: the chalice. For many centuries, laymen had received at communion only the bread, never the wine. Only the clergy received communion in both kinds, both bread and wine. Some time that spring-summer of 1414, priests in Prague, and then elsewhere, began to give the chalice—the cup holding the wine—to the laity. We know this was happening because it was listed among the abuses complained of at the Council. Its practice was formally condemned on 15 June 1414. Hus had never been an advocate, but he rejected the Council's condemnation. But the whole issue of the lay chalice developed apart from Hus himself.

The issue had developed naturally and spontaneously. In the early years of the Church, Christians had celebrated in both kinds. Over the centuries, for reasons that are obscure, the chalice was reserved to the clergy. We don't really know why because it was a non-issue to the people at the time. Most laymen received communion only once a year, if then. It just didn't much matter.

But the Hussite reformers emphasized frequent communion. Somewhere along the line they got the idea that the priests were depriving the laity of something important. When the practice was condemned on 15 June, and Hus was burned on 6 July, the chalice instantly became a symbol of Hussite resistance. It was an outward statement of one's position. There you were at Mass, and the priest brought forth the chalice. Would you accept it, or not? Instantly, everyone would know your position. There was no middle ground: you either took the chalice or you didn't. Very quickly, churches were identified as Hussite or Catholic based on whether the chalice was offered or not.