Have you ever wondered why the priest mixes water with wine when he prepares the table for Holy Communion? It’s history and symbolism are fascinating. In case you do not know or have not noticed when you come to Church, the wine and water are contained in glass ‘cruets’ at a side table. If a larger amount of wine is needed, it may be poured into a bronze ‘flagon’. The ‘flagon’ is often used at Christmas and Easter when the attendance is higher. The wine we use is especially made for sacramental use, meaning its alcohol content is slightly higher than regular wine. But any kind of wine can be used. Most often red wine is used. Some churches use white wine because it does not stain the altar linens as does red wine.
Why does the priest mix wine with water? The idea goes back to the ancient Greeks, like Homer, and the Romans. In ancient times, the wine was very thick, gritty, and high in alcohol content. Water was mixed with the wine to make it more palatable to drink. Also, in the ancient world, people drank wine for health reasons. You could not always trust that the water was safe to drink and so, instead, people drank wine regularly. To prevent people getting easily drunk, it was necessary to dilute the wine with water. In the Middle Ages beer was consumed instead of water for the same reason. Likewise, Gin was the drink of choice during England’s industrial revolution. The mixing of wine with water also symbolizes for the ancient Greeks the virtue of temperance that was portrayed in their art by a woman holding a jug of water. But in the main, wine was mixed with water for practical reasons.
How does this mixing of wine with water find its way into the liturgy? We learn from the early Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr that water was normally added to the wine in a chalice before it was brought forward to the Altar. The only reason they did this was because it was a common societal practice. But it was not long before the practical reasoning for mixing wine with water adopted symbolic meaning. Remember what Jesus did at the wedding in Cana? He turned water into wine. The mixing of wine with water began to symbolize the miracle of water turning into wine. This mixture also symbolized the Incarnation, that Jesus was both human and divine, yet one person. The water symbolizes Christ’s humanity and the wine His divinity. The mixing of wine with water, as we learn from Cyprian of Carthage also came to symbolize God’s people in the Church (water) becoming one with its Head, Jesus Christ (wine). Lastly, it reminds us, as John tells us in His Gospel, that water and blood flowed out of the side of Jesus when He was on the Cross.
The great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas standardized the symbolic significance of the mixing of wine with water. The first two reasons remind us of one, of the Last Supper where Jesus likely, as any Jew at that time would have done, mixed water with wine and two of the water and blood that flowed out of the side of Jesus on the Cross. The second two reasons remind us of what the Sacrament of Holy Communion does for us. One, when we receive the water and wine, we become one with Christ, and two, that we can trust that we will be with Christ for all eternity.
Roman Catholics have a beautiful prayer the priest prays over the chalice when the mixing of wine and water happens.
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 prayer reminds us that we can share in Christ’s divinity because He came down to us in human form. What about the Anglican Tradition. In the first Prayer Book in 1549, the Rubrics (directions on what you are supposed to do), says the minister putting the wine into the chalice, there unto putting in a little pure and clean water. The priest was instructed to mix wine with water for Holy Communion. However, there was a backlash from the puritan wing of the Anglican Church that insisted we should get rid of any liturgical practice that is not mentioned in the bible. But others insisted the Church has practiced mixing the wine with water for centuries. In the 1552 and 1558 versions of the Prayer Book there was no rubric instructing the priest to mix wine with water. In the 1662 Prayer Book a rubric instructed the priest as follows: The priest shall put on the table so much bread and wine as he shall think sufficient. No reference to water! Some interpreted the rubric to say you could not add water. Others believed this was not the case. Ultimately, this question about adding water to wine went to the Ecclesiastical court of the Anglican Church. It decided the priest could add water to wine but only if it was not part of the service and could only be done before. If it was, Church authorities feared it would be too papist.
But things changed the in 19C during the Oxford Movement. Led by Pusey and Newman, there was a push to reconnect the Anglican Church to the teachings of the early Church Fathers and, especially, early Church’s liturgical practices. This movement combined with liturgical movement in the 20th century restored and made common the mixing of wine with water in Holy Communion. Although no Anglican priest is required to engage in this practice today, it commonly is and serves as a reminder of the deeper truths it symbolizes.