A: Canon 924 §1 states that “The most holy Eucharistic sacrifice must be offered with bread and with wine in which a little water must be mixed.” Further, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments stated in a letter dated April 30, 2012, that in the case of several chalices “it is sufficient” to add water only to the main celebrant’s chalice. Mixing water into all the chalices, however, “would not in any way be considered to be an abuse” (see Committee on Divine Worship Newsletter, May-June 2012).
The practice of mixing water with wine was commonplace among Mediterranean peoples and references are made by Homer and other ancient authors. Avoiding drunkenness was often given as the reason, and this view persisted throughout the centuries. The 15th century artist Piero del Pollaiolo’s depiction of Lady Temperance has her pouring a thin line of water into a jug of wine.
Though the practice has cultural and practical roots, the Church has long held that in the context of the Mass there are several symbolic meanings. The words spoken by the priest or deacon preparing the chalice are: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
The wine represents the Lord and the water represents the people, echoing the words of Revelation 17:15: “The waters that you saw where the harlot lives represent large numbers of peoples, nations and tongues.” Thus, the mingling symbolizes the divine Lord’s taking on our human flesh in the Incarnation. And so we hope, in the words of St. Peter, to “come to share in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) through the reception of the Holy Eucharist.
St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), in an epistle written to a Brother Cecil, expanded upon other theologically important meanings. Just as the water cannot be separated from the wine after mingling, so too “nothing can separate the Church…from Christ as long as it clings and remains in undivided love.” For this reason, St. Cyprian goes on to argue that the wine cannot be offered without the water or the water without wine any more than the water and flour can be offered alone and become the body Christ.
In a homily by St. Faustus of Riez (d. 495) we find that the meaning of the water and wine is not just a cultural tradition but is a necessary part of the rite from what we know of the Passion of Our Lord. “Blood and water flowed from his sacred side when he was pierced with the lance,” he wrote. And the Council of Trent affirms this interpretation when it taught that the water is to be mixed into the wine (see Session XXII).
Though the roots of the practice may be cultural, the deeper theological meaning reminds us of how intimately our Savior loves us and invites us to participate in his divine life through the reception of his body and blood.
—Answered by Deacon Omar Gutierrez, Archdiocese of Omaha