|Pope John XXIII elevating the Host|
Ever wonder why we refer to the Eucharistic species as “the Host”? The Latin hostia means “sacrifice,” and it is from this definition that the Eucharistic Host takes the name, as a reminder that in the Eucharist, Christ is the Sacrifice for our sins.
But the Latin word hostia comes from hostis, which has a fascinatingly wide range of meanings, from “victim” to “guest,” from “host” to “enemy.” Why this range of opposing (even contradictory) meanings? Because it arose from a word meaning “stranger,” and strangers can either be treated with hostility (as a threat or potential victim), or hospitality. And this complex word neatly captures several dimensions of our relationship with Christ, so it is worth exploring in greater detail.
Leon Kass explains the etymology of the word “host” on page 101 of The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature:
The English word host – one who lodges and entertains another in his home – stems from an Old French word (oste, hoste) that means both “host” and “guest,” primarily because it also means “stranger” or “foreigner.” (The original Latin root, hostis, from the Indo-European ghostis, means “stranger” and “enemy”; this meaning lies behind our use of host to mean an armed company of men, presumably hostile to us.)
A similar dual meaning of “host” and “guest” (and also “stranger” and “foreigner”) attaches to the Latin root hospes, source of our words hospital and hospice (originally a “house of hostel [italics added] for the reception and entertainment of pilgrims, travelers, and strangers”), hospitable (originally “affording welcome, entertainment, and generosity to strangers and visitors”; now “disposed to receive or welcome kindly), and hospitality, the practice of welcoming and tending generously to the needs and desires of stranger-guests. Much of the transformation of host from stranger and would be enemy to provider of hospitality is the work of often-elaborate custom. But such custom in fact gives expression to the natural human ability and willingness to recognize natural sameness despite and beneath conventional otherness.
So “Hostia” means, at once, (1) “Victim,” (2) “Host” (in the sense of “one who lodges and entertains another in his home”), (3) “Guest,” (4) “Stranger,” and (5) “Enemy.” In the Eucharist, we can see our relationship with Christ through all five of these lenses.
First, and most directly, the Eucharistic species is called the Host because Christ is Hostia, Victim. One of the most beautiful Eucharistic hymns, O Salutaris Hostia, literally means “O Saving Victim.” The lyrics to the hymn, in English:
O saving Victim, open wide
the gate of heaven to man below;
our foes press on from every side;
thine aid supply; thy strength bestow.
All praise and thanks to thee ascend
for evermore, blest One in Three;
O grant us life that shall not end
in our true native land with thee.
The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Calvary, and it was there that Christ offered Himself up to the Father as Sacrificial Victim, in Atonement for our sins. This role of Christ-as-Victim is referred to repeatedly in Scripture (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:7; Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 9:26).
Of course, Jesus is also the High Priest, so He is not the Victim in a helpless way, but in the sense of voluntarily offering up His life (Hebrews 7:27).
Christ is the Host, in the more conventional English usage of “one who lodges and entertains another in his home” in the Eucharist. We must never forget that He invites us to the Eucharistic banquet, and that the Mass is “the Lord’s Supper” (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:20). Ultimately, the Liturgy is not something that we offer to God, but something that He invites us into.
Likewise, the Church is “the House of God” (Hebrews 10:21; cf. 1 Peter 4:17). When you come to the Church, you are a guest in His House, eating His Heavenly Food, which He offers us gratuitously. In doing so, “you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
As noted above, the words for hospitality and hosting seem to arrive from the practice of taking a stranger (and potential enemy) and welcoming him in. Christ is the apex of hospitality in this sense: as Host, He takes us from being hostis, strangers (Eph. 2:19) and even enemies (Romans 5:10) of God, and He transforms us into His guests, going so far as to make us members of His Household.
Christ is also Host in the sense of being our Guest: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Christ remains the active party : He comes to us. Yet we still have the option to receive Him or not. Whether He enters our lives to Commune with us at the Lord’s Supper depends on whether or not “any one hears [His] voice and opens the door.”
So there is a sense, at Mass, in which are Christ’s guests. But there is another sense in which He becomes our Guest, which is why we pray, right before Communion (in words based off of the centurion’s prayer of Matthew 8:8), “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” Hostis refers to both host and guest, and Christ is both. And much more.
In the traditional Jewish wedding ritual, a crucial lens for understanding the relationship between Christ and the Church, the wedding occurred in two phases separated by as much as a year’s worth of time:
- First, the bridegroom would marry his bride, which Christ did during His time on Earth, creating the Church, and offering Himself up for Her entirely.
- Then, because “bachelor pads” weren’t a thing in ancient Judaism, the man would be permitted as much as a year to go off and prepare a home for his new wife. It’s during this year that the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and bear a Son, on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, which we celebrate today. Mary and Joseph are wedded, but not yet living together.
Like the Virgin Mary, this is the same place we find ourselves today. The Bridegroom of the Church, Jesus Christ, has gone before us to Heaven to prepare a place for us, as He promised (John 13:1-3):
Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
We see this in a beautiful way in the consummation of all things, when He invites His Bride, the Church, to the “wedding feast of the Lamb,” as Revelation 19:6-9 prophesies:
19th century Jewish nissu’in in Eastern Europe.
The nissu’in was the second (and final) stage of the wedding.
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying,“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,for the marriage of the Lamb has come,and his Bride has made herself ready;it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.”
So Christ invites us into His Home, both to dine with Him, and to live with Him forever.
Earlier, I described the earthly Communion with Christ as “the apex of hospitality,” but I should modify that somewhat: the eternal and heavenly Eucharistic Banquet is the truest apex, in a such that it’s not even possible in this lifetime. The closest we can come in this life is in receiving the Blessed Sacrament at Mass.