The Veil, the Chalice and the Dignity of Man Like the Sacred Vessels at Mass, We Were Made to Receive Christ (Part 1)

06-16-2019Liturgy CornerFather Jerry Pokorsky

According to the liturgical legislation of the Church, the chalice used at Mass should be covered with a veil. The General Instruction for the Roman Missal [GIRM 80c] states, "The chalice should be covered with a veil, which may always be white" . Like most liturgical vestments, the chalice veil is a mysterious garment. We may be tempted to dismiss it as a kind of decoration. But the chalice and the veil not only have a function during the celebration of Mass, they also remind us of a dignity that is too often veiled.

A veil is used to cover the chalice when it is carried to and from the altar during the celebration of Mass. It is usually the same color as the vestments. As a liturgical vestment, it was probably introduced in the Middle Ages, and may have had a functional origin-perhaps developed from a sacculum or small bag for carrying the sacred vessels.

The veil still has a function. For example, the veil is useful sign to parishioners accustomed to reciting the entrance and Communion antiphons during weekday Masses which vary according to the feast. The priest is often given the choice of celebrating a memorial in honor of a martyr. When he uses a red chalice veil, this indicates even before Mass begins that he has chosen that optional memorial. The veiled chalice can also highlight both the relationship and the distinction between the two main parts of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Just as the Gospel book which contains God’s Word is adorned and dignified with beautiful covers, so the vessels that will contain the Body and Blood of the Lord should be adorned and dignified with the veil. Also, since the chalice is the visible sign of the Eucharist, it seems appropriate that it should be veiled during the first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word. The source of a deeper symbolic meaning of the chalice veil is found in the Scriptures. As prescribed in Exodus and described in Hebrews, a veil or curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple: For a tent was prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence; it is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant (Hebrews 9:2-4).

The chalice veil reminds us of the curtain setting apart the Holy of Holies, and prompts us to approach the altar aware of our unworthiness to enter into union with God. The removal of the chalice veil is one of the first liturgical actions at the Offertory in preparation for the reception of the gifts of bread and wine from the congregation. The removal of the veil following the Liturgy of the Word signifies that the sacred mysteries are about to be revealed. Again, this action is a symbolic echo of the Scripture: And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised (Matthew 27:50-51).

The torn curtain at the death of Jesus signifies the transition from the Old Covenant to the consummation of the New Covenant promised by Jesus at the Last Supper: "And likewise He took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20). The removal of the chalice veil signifies the transition from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the "heavenly liturgy".

Despite the barrier of our unworthiness, the unveiling of the chalice invites us to enter into the celebration of the sacred mysteries. When the veil is removed, the splendor of the chalice is exposed. Liturgical legislation requires that the chalice "be made from materials that are solid and that in the particular region are regarded as noble. The conference of bishops will be the judge in this matter. But preference is to be given to materials that do not break easily or become unusable" (girm, 290). Chalices "are to have a cup of nonabsorbent material. The base may be of any other solid and worthy material" (girm, 291).