Why is water is added to the wine in only the main altar chalice?
This week’s question pertains to our commemoration of what we call “The Marvelous Exchange” – where we offer to God (through Mary) our humanity so that Jesus can bring to us God’s Divinity.
During the Mass, as the gifts are presented on the altar to the Lord, the deacon (or the priest, if there is no deacon) adds a drop of water to the chalice filled with wine (the fruit of the vine). As he does so, he inaudibly says this prayer: “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.” Here then, is the central mystery of our faith: Jesus becoming man so that we could become Godly (as members of the Body of Christ).
Historically, this practice dates to the 1st Century and the time of the Last Supper, when water was commonly mixed with wine (the wine was a bit stronger then, and the water a bit less hygienic – and so mixing them together improved both). It also recalls for us the water and blood that poured from Jesus’ side.
Symbolically, the wine represents Jesus’ Divinity, and the water represents our humanity. Or, if you prefer, the wine at the Mass is Jesus, and the water is the people. The Mass is all about the conjoining (or communion) of these two parties: God and His people. That’s what this little rite is all about.
So, now for your question: why is the water only added to the main chalice? Unfortunately, I am not qualified to give a definitively satisfactory answer to that – except to point out a couple of things. The reason the water is not added to the other chalices is simply because that’s what Mother Church instructs us to do, and we don’t mess with the Mass. Now, as for the reason for the reason … I might offer a couple of personal (and probable) reflections.
First, noting the symbolism involved, all the people are represented in the 1 drop of water in the main chalice, and so there is no need to repeat the rite in each individual chalice. Second (and I think this is the stronger argument here), the focus of all the ritual action during the Mass is on one thing at a time. When the priest takes the chalice (or the host) during the consecration, he only takes one. He doesn’t hold up all the little individual hosts nor all the other chalices. First of all, it would generally not be possible to do so, but moreover, it would be distracting and take our focus off of the One bread becoming the One Body of Christ. This is true even though all the hosts (and all the chalices) are included (through the priest’s intention) in the consecration.
I know that this is only scratching the surface of the matter here, so thanks for asking such a great question, and let me give a robust “Way to go!” for your perceptive observations! As always, if you have further insights or questions, please share them with us via our “Three Parish Catholic Family” Facebook page. May God continue to bless you and your loved ones throughout this Christmas Season!