If you cook at all, you often mix ingredients together to make something new. That could include eggs and milk, butter and honey, or even coffee and caramel. We do it almost automatically, but if you think about it, every new mixture adds a moment of wonder to life.
At the Mass, there are two moments like this. Of course, because they are part of the Mass, they shine with far more splendor than any cooking recipe. However, they are sometimes so automatic that they can be missed. And, since they add wonder and glory to our liturgy, they should be noted more often.
Both of these moments take place during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, that part of the Mass where we prepare to receive the body and blood of Christ at Communion.
The first of these mixtures takes place as the gifts of bread and wine are prepared. We’ve all seen it done: right after the gifts are presented, the priest (or deacon) pours the wine into the chalice; then takes a cruet of water and pours a few drops into the wine. After the water is poured into the wine, the priest (or deacon) take the chalice and prays: “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.”
There are several reasons given to us as to why water is mixed in the wine.
- The first comes from the daily life of Jesus. In the ancient world of the Mediterranean, wine was often watered down. Since water was often contaminated, it was common to use wine as the main drink. So water was mixed into it for practical reasons. When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, he would probably have used watered wine.
- The second reason for placing water in wine is Christ’s Passion. In John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ death on the cross, blood and water flowed from his pierced side (19:35). The water and wine in the chalice also remind us of this.
- Water, since the beginning of the church, has symbolized new life through baptism. Its use in the Eucharist reminds us of our own rebirth into the Body the Christ — his church — through the water of baptism. St. Ambrose, in the fourth century, noted that water poured into the Eucharistic chalice “springs forth unto everlasting life.”
- Finally, and perhaps most important to our total participation in the Eucharist, is the tradition that water symbolizes the joining of our human lives to the divine life of Christ.
Jesus is both human and divine — the two cannot be separated in him. So, just as drops of water poured into the chalice cannot be separated from wine, our humanity cannot be separated from Christ.
So water poured into the chalice isn’t just a tradition; it’s a visual teaching of our theology: a very important reminder of our reality in Christ.
The second special mixture that comes during the Mass is called “the Fraction Rite.” This takes place after the consecration of the bread and wine. It is called “the commingling” and happens after the Agnus Dei (The Lamb of God). While the people entreat mercy from the Lamb of God, the priest breaks the host in two. Then he breaks off another smaller piece and drops that into the chalice of wine. This small piece of consecrated bread is called the fermentum. a Latin word for yeast.
During the addition of the fermentum to the consecrated wine, the priest quietly prays, “May the mingling of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”
This commingling is meant to remind us that, just as Christ’s body was filled up with new life at the resurrection, the promise of salvation is offered to all who share in the Eucharist of his body and blood.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal tells us that the commingling, and its accompanying prayer, should remind all believers of the salvation Christ brought us through his own death and resurrection: “… to signify the unity of the body and blood of the Lord in the work of salvation, namely, of the living and glorious Body of Jesus Christ” (n. 83).
This mingling of the consecrated bread and wine to symbolize unity dates to the ancient church and the early papal Masses in Rome. Pope Innocent I (who was pope from 401-417) decreed that, since not all priests could attend his Sunday Mass, acolytes would carry a piece of the consecrated bread from his papal Mass to his priests to share at their Masses throughout Rome. This shared piece of bread was placed into their chalices.
These two special moments of mingled ingredients at Mass can happen so quickly that we might forget to notice them. However, they serve to remind us of a very special mixture that only God, the creator and master chef, can bring about: the unity of divinity with humanity in Jesus. And because of that, we have become one with the body and blood of Christ — sent to bring joy like wine and the growth of yeast out to the world.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; the Roman Missal, Third Edition; General Instruction of the Roman Missal; usccb.org; Responses to 101 Questions of the Mass; The Church at Prayer: the Eucharist; etymonline.com; and Dictionary of the Liturgy