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Backwash Jesus???

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. 

"I know Father doesn't mean to, and I don't blame him. I'm sure it's only an accident, you see." She took a while getting to her main point (as I doing right now, I'm afraid).

"There's always a bit of--uh, 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"? Isn't that interesting? We literally, then, eat the "victim" at Mass.

The "Fraction" Rite

"The Emmaus Disciples" By Abraham Bloemaert
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 what's the point?

The point is that 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, as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1329: 
The Breaking of Bread, because Jesus used this rite, part of a Jewish meal, when as master of the table he blessed and distributed the bread (cf. Mt 14:19; 15:36; Mk 8:6, 19), above all at the Last Supper (cf. Mt 26:26; 1 Cor 11:24). It is by this action that his disciples will recognize him after his Resurrection (cf. Lk 24:13-35), and it is this expression that the first Christians will use to designate their Eucharistic assemblies (cf. Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7,11); by doing so they signified that all who eat the one broken bread, Christ, enter into communion with him and form but one body in him (cf. 1 Cor 10:16-17).
 Hang in there--we're nearly at the heart of the matter.

"Commingling" Since The Beginning

"Commingling: the celebrant drops a part of the host into the chalice" (GI 56d; Rubr.)
The above-quoted General Insruction 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'll try not too distracted with the richness of this tradition!
Icon of St. Justin Martyr

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??! Anyway, back to Justin Martyr.

Justin Martyr was born around 100AD,  converted to Christianity ca. 130AD, and thereafter became a great apologist for the fledgling Church. The Roman prefect Junius Rusticus--whom the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, claimed was his most important teacher (God help him!)--tortured and beheaded Justin and his six companions ca. 165AD, because they would not sacrifice to idols. Justin thus became Justin Martyr. 

The Trial of Justin Martyr and His Companions by Rusticus
Justin Martyr wrote in his First Apology the following describing the Sacrament of the Eucharist and  "commingling": 
(From Chapter 65, "Administration of the Sacraments") Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
Sound familiar? Does it sound like the Eucharistic prayers offered by the "president", i.e. the presider: the priest? Then, there's the Great Amen.  Also, did you catch that last part? They "carry away a portion" to those who are absent, as in bringing communion to the sick and home-bound. This is also significant to commingling. Justin continues ...
(From Chapter 66, "Of the Eucharist") And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that 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.
Did you just notice that? A "transmutation" of the "food which is blessed" into the "flesh and blood" of Jesus? Don't ever let anybody tell you that the Church just invented the idea of transubstantiation sometime in the Middle Ages!!

And lastly, again to the point of commingling:

(From Chapter 67, "Weekly Worship of the Christians") 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.
The portion in bold strikes at the heart of the matter.  The Eucharist is "distribut[ed] 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. 

Byzantine Rite, Priest with Chalice
Also, The deacons would deliver a portion to those "who are absent." It is also said that the deacons, when delivering communion, would add the "portion" to fresh wine. Why? Because the consecrated bread would grow stale and hard--the wine would soften it back up!

A similar practice is still found in some of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, such as the Ruthenian Rite. In Ruthenian Masses, chunks of the consecrated bread soak in the chalice and the priest delivers the wine-soaked bread to the faithful with a spoon. Newcomers are told politely before Mass: "DON'T BITE THE SPOON!" LOL.

Horizontal & Vertical "Commingling"

"Christ of St. John of the Cross"
by Salvador Dali (1951)
" 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!
Thanks for reading, and God bless!

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