There is a great deal of history and symbolism behind all the different vessels and vestments we use in the practice of our faith. From the cassock to the ciborium and the crosier to the burse, we have a lot of items and terms that are foreign to modern ears.
We have so much history and tradition, the amount of lore associated with Catholic traditions can seem overwhelming.
However, while at times it may seem intimidating, remember that the basic tenets of the Catholic faith remain the same.
As Catholics, we learn and grow by increasing our understanding of the underlying histories and meanings behind the holy traditions of the Church such as the history of the pyx as the sacred vessel for the Eucharist.
A pyx (or pyxis) is a small container that priests or Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers use to carry the consecrated host to people who cannot, for whatever reason, attend Mass that day. Most often, they bring the Eucharist to those who are sick or homebound.
The containers are usually shaped like a cylinder. The lid, often with a sacred symbol or image on the top, may have a hinge and clasp or simply lie flat on the top. Most pyxes are made from gold, brass, silver or pewter to honor the sacred host that it contains.
The use of metal in construction is also important in cleaning the vessel. Using non-porous metal means that crumbs and particles of the Blessed Sacrament will not be embedded or lost. Taken a step farther, some pyxes are constructed with a bump in the bottom to make retrieving the individual hosts without crushing or breaking easier.
When a Eucharistic Minister places the consecrated host into a pyx, he will put the pyx in a small pouch, called a burse. The pouch is usually made out of leather or fabric, and it can be drawn closed. Often, the minister will fix the burse around his neck when he carries the pyx.
The Word, “Pyx”
The name “Pyx” comes from Greek and Latin words. The Greek root word is πυξις, pronounced puxis, and the Latin is a transliteration of the Greek word pyxis.
When the church was first formed, the term was commonly used for any kind of box. If you wanted to carry around your gold coins to go to the market, you might put them in a pyxis.
In the United Kingdom, they still use the word “pyx” in this way. They have a ceremony, called the trial of the pyx, where newly minted coins are tested to see if they fit the metallurgical standards set by the government. This tradition has remained the same since the 13th century.
Eventually, the word “pyx” came to refer to only sacred vessels. This shines a light on the naming conventions for almost all our liturgical items.
The name for nearly every piece of liturgical clothing or communion vessel was once a common term for everyday items. When the culture began to change, and people stopped using those words, the church kept them until they became terms that refer only to sacred items.
The Sacred Pyx
In the Middle Ages, the pyx was the most common term used for the cup which held the Eucharist. In the Customal of Cluny, a document from the eleventh century, it speaks of a deacon taking a golden pyx out of a large dove that hangs permanently above the altar. It would be like the tabernacles that churches use to hold the blessed Eucharist today.
In some places, the word pyx referred to a special kind of container in a specific shape, a dove. This custom developed especially in late antiquity. The example above comes from France.
They would use this pyx to hold the Blessed Sacrament between celebrations of the Eucharist. This pyx would then be suspended above the altar for all to see.
The dove, as you may know, is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and it is a common image on pyxes in the Catholic Church, as well. The dove helps to symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the mass, and it connects the work of the Holy Spirit to what the priest does in consecrating the bread and the wine. Eventually, the pyx became known as only the cylindrical objects we use to carry the host.
Eastern Christians, however, use the word to refer to their tabernacles which contain the consecrated host between celebrations of the Eucharist. This pyx is especially used during the season of Lent for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
This Eucharistic liturgy uses already consecrated bread and wine to celebrate it on weekdays during Lent. This liturgy tones down the joyful character of the Sunday liturgy in keeping with the somber and repentant themes of Lent.
The Catholic Church has many wonderful traditions that help to give meaning and history to our practices. It also makes everything a bit more confusing for the new Christian.
We use Latin terms and refer to items that no one outside the church would know. It’s important for each of us to familiarize ourselves with these traditions, so we can answer questions and pass on our faith to the next generation.