Mixing the Wine with Water

Posted by Jeffrey Pinyan at 2:04 PM

This prayer from the Mass is said quietly by the deacon or priest during the Preparation of the Gifts, while he prepares the chalice by pouring in some wine and then adding a few drops of water:
Per huius aquæ et vini mystérium
eius efficiámur divinitátis consórtes,
qui humanitátis nostræ fíeri dignátus est párticeps.

By the mystery of this water and wine              2 Macc. 15:39; John 19:34
may we come to share in the divinity of Christ          Rom. 5:2; 2 Pet. 1:4
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.                       Phil. 2:8
The simple act of pouring water into wine, and the prayer accompanying it, is a synthesis of the whole Mass, of the whole Catholic faith, and of all salvation history.  In order to unearth the theological and doctrinal riches of this easily-overlooked rite, we should first examine the history of this prayer.
Its oldest known ancestor is a Collect for the Nativity of our Lord from the Leonine Sacramentary, an ancient Mass-book dating back to the seventh century, if not earlier.  Here is a translation of the Latin prayer:
O God,
Who wonderfully created the dignity of man’s nature,
and have more wonderfully renewed it,
grant, we beseech You,
that we may be made partakers of His divinity
Who humbled Himself to become a partaker of our humanity
Christ Your Son.
The first half of this Collect speaks of man’s creation and then of his redemption and sanctification in Christ.  The second half considers the Incarnation (celebrated especially on the Solemnity of the Nativity) by which Christ condescended to share our humanity, and which enables us to share in His divinity, in the eternal life of God.  The bold text is what remains of the prayer in the Ordinary Form.
This prayer was incorporated into the Roman Rite, slightly adapted, to accompany the mingling of water with wine in the chalice.  Here is a translation of how the prayer appears in the Extraordinary Form:
O God,
Who wonderfully created the dignity of man’s nature,
and have more wonderfully renewed it,
grant that, through the mystery of this water and wine,
we may be made partakers of His divinity
Who humbled Himself to become a partaker of our humanity
Jesus Christ, Your Son…
You can see that it is essentially the same as the ancient Collect, with the addition of the underlined clause concerning “the mystery of this water and wine.”
Without this context, one might misinterpret the prayer as it exists in the Ordinary Form not as a prayer but merely as a commentary directed to the congregation (and therefore, as words which should be said aloud), but its history shows that these words are still a prayer addressed to God.  So two questions remain:  why is water mixed with the wine, and what has that to do with the Incarnation, with humanity and divinity?
Mixing water with wine was a cultural practice of Jesus’ day, and Apostolic Tradition teaches us that Jesus followed this practice at the Last Supper.  It was not a dishonest practice (cf. Isa. 1:22); rather, wine was thicker and more potent in those days, and it was necessary to temper the wine with water. (cf. 2 Macc. 15:39)  Already in the first three centuries of the Church, there are numerous sources which confirm that the wine used at Mass was mixed with water:  St. Justin Martyr’s account of the Sunday liturgy (cf. First Apology 65, 67), St. Irenaeus’ references to a mixed cup (cf. Against Heresies 4:32; 5:2), St. Clement of Alexandria’s words that “the blood of the grape – that is, the Word – desired to be mixed with water” (The Instructor 2:2), and St. Cyprian’s Letter 62 (on the use of wine and water in the chalice) where he writes several times that it is a tradition of Christ Himself foretold in the book of Proverbs:  “Wisdom has built her house … she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. … She says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” (Prov. 9:1-5)
But the wine used at Mass is no longer as thick or strong as the wine used two thousand years ago.  What was once necessary gained a spiritual significance which has endured long after the necessity has ceased.  The wine and water have four predominant symbolic interpretations.
First, they allude to the piercing of Christ’s heart after His death.  St. John records that one of the soldiers, to ensure that Christ was dead, “pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” (John 19:34; cf. 1 John 5:6)  This event itself was prefigured by Moses in the desert, when God commanded him to strike a rock with his rod so that water would flow forth. (cf. Ex. 17:5-6)  St. Paul tells us that the rock was an allegory of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4); later Christians saw the wooden rod of Moses as a foreshadowing of the cross.  This event is seen sometimes as the birth of the Church, born out of the side of Christ while He slept in death; for Christ is the new Adam, and Eve was born out of the side of the sleeping Adam. (cf. Gen. 2:21-22)  The water and blood represent the sacraments of the Baptism and Eucharist, which are the beginning and culmination of all the sacraments:  “Water to cleanse, blood to redeem.” (St. Ambrose, De Sacramentis Book 5, 1:4)
This act is the basis for two popular devotions:  the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Divine Mercy.  Devotion to the Sacred Heart depicts His heart in this way:  wounded and bleeding, aflame with charity, implanted with a cross, crowned with thorns, and radiant with divine light.  The image of Divine Mercy devotion shows rays of red and white light streaming from His heart “as a fountain of mercy for us.”  Just as Moses saw a glimpse of God on Mt. Horeb through a cleft in the rock (cf. Ex. 33:18-23), it is by the opening of Jesus’ heart – the cleft in the Rock Who is Christ – that we see a glimpse of the extent and power of God’s love for us. (I owe this allegory to a brief lecture on the Sacred Heart by Rev. John Zuhlsdorf.)
Second, they represent Christ’s divinity and humanity:  the wine points to His divinity, and the water to His humanity.  Once the water and wine mingle, they cannot be separated; so too Christ’s divinity and humanity, while distinct, are eternally joined in the Incarnation, which is why the original prayer was used on Christmas.  Thus the prayer speaks of the “mystery of this water and wine.”  The Incarnation is the greatest act of “divine condescencion,” where God stoops down to our human level; it is the mystery and paradox of divine humility.  “Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity” alludes to St. Paul’s words that Jesus “being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8)
From the identification of the water with humanity comes the third symbolism:  the union of the faithful with Christ.  This too is drawn from the words of the prayer:  “may we come to share in the divinity of Christ.”  The notion of sharing in the divine nature is not blasphemous; on the contrary, it is scriptural!  It comes from St. Peter’s second letter:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. (2 Pet. 1:3-4)
St. Paul alludes to this union as well, when he writes that through Jesus “we rejoice in our hoping of sharing the glory of God.” (Rom. 5:2)  This was the ultimate purpose for which the Incarnation took place, so that after we are redeemed we might also be exalted by God:
The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”:  “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man:  so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”  “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”  “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” (Catechism 460)
To receive the blood of Jesus Christ “is to become partaker of the Lord’s immortality.” (The Instructor, 2:2)
The union of divinity and humanity is a mystical marriage.  Consider the first miracle of Jesus, changing water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. (cf. John 2:1-10)  That this happened at a wedding points to the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9) of Christ and His Bride, the Church.  St. Paul wrote of this divine matrimony to the Corinthians and the Ephesians:  “I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband.” (2 Cor. 11:2)  “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph. 5:25)
The drops of water added to the wine no longer exist of themselves but are caught up and incorporated into the wine.  The water does not merely represent abstract humanity, but each of us concretely as humans:  “we are the drop of water united with the wine.” (Calvary and the Mass)  This is an analogy for life in Christ:  what Jesus has by nature (His divine Sonship), we receive by grace (divine adoption).  We “are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18), but this transformation will not be complete until we enter Heaven.
St. Cyprian wrote eloquently about the necessity of using both wine and water in the chalice.  After identifying the wine with Christ and the water with those who make up the Church, he insists that
in consecrating the cup of the Lord, water alone cannot be offered, even as wine alone cannot be offered.  For if any one offer wine only, the blood of Christ is dissociated from us; but if the water be alone, the people are dissociated from Christ; but when both are mingled, and are joined with one another by a close union, there is completed a spiritual and heavenly sacrament.
Thus the cup of the Lord is not indeed water alone, nor wine alone, unless each be mingled with the other; just as, on the other hand, the body of the Lord cannot be flour alone or water alone, unless both should be united and joined together and compacted in the mass of one bread; in which very sacrament our people are shown to be made one, so that in like manner as many grains, collected, and ground, and mixed together into one mass, make one bread; so in Christ, who is the heavenly bread, we may know that there is one body, with which our number is joined and united. (Letter 62, 13)
Notice how St. Cyprian draws attention to the imperceptible presence of water in the bread as well as in the wine?  Both elements, then, attest to our participation in Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist.  This shows how it is we all participate in the Offertory:  as we (water) are united to Christ (wine), we must unite our prayers and sacrifices to His sacrifice in the Eucharist.  Just because these Offertory prayers are said quietly (for the most part) does not mean the faithful are mute spectators while the priest “does his thing.”  Instead, in that intimate silence is the setting for our deeply personal union with Christ and self-offering with Him.
The fourth symbolism is based on the ancient words of this prayer, lacking in the Ordinary Form, referring to our creation and re-creation in Christ. (cf. Catechism 1692)  The water represents the purity of nature in which man was created:  “little less than God,” crowned with glory and honor, with dominion over the world and all therein. (cf. Ps. 8)  But from such a lofty height, our first parents fell into sin and this purity was lost.  We now live in hope of redemption through the blood of Christ.  It is through water that we are born anew, made “a new creation” in Christ. (2 Cor. 5:17)  This re-creation is a greater work than the first creation and a foretaste of the future eternity where God will “make all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)  Therefore, let us pray that God may bring to completion the work of re-creation that He has begun in us! (cf. Phil. 1:6)
Do not be surprised that so much can be written about such a small prayer.  The rite and its prayer are of phenomenal significance, as they represent the totality of redemption, from the Incarnation to the Passion and beyond, to the Resurrection and our eventual sharing in the divine life of God in Heaven.