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Prayer for the week

01 November 2013

This prayer unheard by the congregation is pregnant with meaning, suggests Ben Stephens


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.

Offertory prayer at the eucharist

IT IS important to recognise that this is a prayer, and not a commentary. Addressed to God quietly by the priest or deacon who prepares the chalice at the eucharist - rather than spoken out loud for the benefit of those within earshot - it is richly symbolic.

Wine, the work of our hands, is mingled with water, a gift from God himself (which is why only the cruet containing the wine, not the one with the water, should be carried in the offertory procession) before being offered at the altar.

Building on last week's theme of incarnation, this prayer is beautifully scriptural. Its water-and-wine imagery is drawn from 2 Maccabees 15.39 and John 19.34; its shared-divinity imagery from Romans 5.2 and 2 Peter 1.4; and its shared-humanity imagery from Philippians 2.8.

The custom of adding water to wine predates the rites of the Church, and was not an act of thriftiness or deceit. It was a necessary refinement of the potent, thick, and heavy wine of the ancient world, and it was natural that the Early Church should do the same with the chalice in the early eucharistic rites.

The writings of the Church Fathers Sts Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria imply that the wine offered in the eucharistic liturgies of their time was mixed in the same way, and St Cyprian of Carthage specifically commended the practice (Letter 62).

Adding water to wine took on its own symbolism as the Church's self-understanding blossomed in the days of the Ecumenical Councils, and a number of profound truths about the nature of Christ and his relationship with his people are expressed in these few lines. It recalls the piercing of Christ's side, and it looks forward to the mystical union of Christ and his people. The prayer also directs us to the wedding-banquet imagery of Revelation 19.9, with its description of the supper of the Lamb.

The physical implications of mingling water with wine teach us eloquently about the nature of Christ, and the manner in which his divinity and humanity are perfectly united. The water is irreversibly incorporated into the wine, with neither displacing the other, and the changed liquid becomes both water and wine contained in a single vessel.

This is a vibrant symbol of the refutation of the Nestorian heresy, condemned at Ephesus in 431, which claimed that Mary did not bear the Second Person of the Trinity in her womb, but instead the human person of Jesus, whom the Father used as a vessel for his Son. The Nestorians claimed that the Eternal Word did not suffer on Calvary, and that God resurrected only the human Jesus, in whom he had chosen to be incarnate.

This prayer reminds us that because Christ, in all his divinity, has humbled himself so that we may be exalted in our humanity, there is hope for us yet. Let us pray that we may in time come to enjoy the beatific vision of the worship of heaven, where a human body with five wounds reigns in glory at the right hand of the Father.

Dr Ben Stephens is a freelance writer and theologian.

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21 April 2021
Book launch: Miles to Go Before I Sleep
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