Why Grape Wine?


It is a definitive doctrine of the Catholic Church that only pure and natural grape wine can be employed as valid matter for transubstantiation into the blood of Christ. The 1983 Code of Canon Law declares: "The most holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist must be celebrated . . . in wine to which a small quantity of water is to be added. . . . The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt" (CIC 924). Moreover, the Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that one of the "essential signs of the eucharistic sacrament" is "grape wine" (CCC 1412).

But why? Can there be exceptions? What about priests afflicted with alcoholism: Couldn’t they use grape juice instead? Similarly, if the priest is allergic to grapes, can the Church permit the use of wine derived from another kind of fruit—say, blackberry or cherry? If a priest cannot tolerate wine made from any fruit whatsoever, shouldn’t he be able to use a fermented beverage obtained from a grain (such as wheat, rye, barley, or rice) or a vegetable (such as corn or potato)? Why should it matter?

First, for a Mass to be valid, a consecration of wine into Christ’s blood must occur. This is because on Calvary (which the Mass mystically re-enacts in an unbloody manner) his blood was separated from his body, as recorded in John 19:31-37, especially verse 34 (see also 1 Jn 5:6).

Well, then, if the blood of Christ must be confected for a valid Mass, can’t an exception be made for the kind of liquid used? No. The categorical statements of both the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church prohibit the use of any altar drink other than grape wine at the consecration of the Mass. (Later we shall see that an accommodation is permissible regarding the degree of its fermentation, so that the problem of alcoholism becomes greatly ameliorated.)

Why So Specific?

Why must the Church be so uncompromising? In short, to preserve the integrity of the symbolic function of the sacrament. Because the sacraments are physical signs of the spiritual results brought about by their enactment, they must use materials with a fitting symbolic value—both on the natural level and within the context of Scripture.

For instance, only plain water can be used for baptism, since baptism brings about spiritual cleansing from original sin and regeneration unto the new life of sanctifying grace—two results that are most aptly represented by the washing and restorative (or life-giving) properties of water. As we have also seen, ("Why Wheat Bread?," This Rock, January 2009) only unadulterated wheat flour can be used for altar bread.

But, someone may object, the juices of many fruits besides the grape can serve to represent human blood. Indeed, some wines (cherry, for example) have a redder hue than grape. To answer this reasonable objection, we must rely on scriptural sources. The examination of texts cannot be superficial, however. For instance, isolated verses about pomegranate or mulberry wine (Song 8:2 and 1 Mc 6:34, respectively) prove nothing. We must undertake a deeper excursion into the Bible.

Fruit of the (Grape)vine

Let us begin with the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, when Jesus offered the first Mass. We know from the three synoptic Gospels (Mt 26:27-29; Mk 14:23-25; Lk 22:17-18, 20) that our Lord took a "cup" containing the "fruit of the vine," giving it to his apostles to drink. Nowhere is the word for "wine" (oinos in Greek) mentioned. Nevertheless, it was a Passover celebration (note Lv 23:5-13) and we know that Christ did drink wine at meals by his own admission (see Lk 7:33-34). Moreover, he changed water into wine at a wedding feast as his first public miracle (see Jn 2:1-11). If this spectacular event was truly—as it seems to be—a foreshadowing of the conversion into his blood of the liquid in the cup when he declared of it "This is my blood," then that drink was obviously wine. Anyway, for pragmatic reasons it could not have been mere fruit juice on account of the absence of the modern convenience of refrigeration. Preservation would have demanded fermentation, hence wine.

But someone may deny that the wine in the chalice, produced from the "fruit of the vine," was necessarily derived from grapes. After all, the Greek word for "grape" (staphulei), like the word for "wine," does not appear in this context. Furthermore, other fruits besides grapes grow on vines: for example, blackberries, raspberries, and tomatoes. But none of the latter fruits are mentioned anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the only occurrence of "berries" is a generic one in Isaiah 17:6, which locates them on an unspecified "fruit tree" after discussing an "olive tree." And the introduction of tomatoes to the Mediterranean area from more western regions evidently long post-dated the biblical era. Indeed, the common biblical fruits are figs, pomegranates, apples, and mulberries—all of which grow on trees, not on "vines" (see, for example, Hg 2:19).

The clincher, however, is this astonishing fact: the Greek word for "vine" (ampelos) is exactly the same as the term for "grapevine"! This word is the root of the term for "vineyard" (ampelonos). Therefore, when Christ spoke of the "fruit of the vine" at the Last Supper, he meant the "fruit of the grapevine." Since "each tree is known by its own fruit" (Lk 6:44) and since a "grapevine" cannot "yield . . . figs" (Jas 3:12) nor any other fruit but grapes, the wine in the chalice at the first Mass had to be grape wine.

Without the Vine, Branches Wither

Consequently, Jesus willed that grape wine signify his precious blood in the eucharistic sacrifice. Because the Eucharist is the preeminent sacrament of unity, this symbolism also explains his metaphor of the vine and the branches, related in John 15:1-8 in the context of the Last Supper discourse. Observe that grapes are clustered together on a vine (see, for example, Gn 40:9, Nm 13:23, Rv 14:18). Unlike berries or tomatoes, which have a more discrete existence on their specific kinds of vine, grapes either hang together or else rot off in separation and die. This is the case in Christ’s parable about him and his followers. Unless they (the "branches" stemming from the vine stalk) remain attached to him ("the Vine"), they will lose the life-giving flow of sanctifying grace that comes from partaking worthily of his precious blood (see Jn 6:53-56). Since it would be repugnant to drink his blood under its ordinary physical appearances, it is fitting that participation in the life of the divine Grapevine should be sustained by sacramental Communion under the form of grape wine. This comparison by Jesus in John 15 seems to indicate a fulfillment in him of the psalmist’s prophecy in Psalm 80:8 (RSV): "Thou didst bring a vine out of Egypt" (note Mt 2:15), as well as the even more messianic verses of Psalm 80:14-15,17 (RSV): "Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock which thy right hand planted. . . . But let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, the son of man whom thou hast made strong for thyself!"

Yet someone may still take issue with the above conclusion on the ground that the Greek for vine, though coinciding with the word for grapevine, may be extended more broadly to include fruits other than grapes. Let us therefore delve more deeply into the Old Testament to prove that only grapes possess the scriptural warrant to signify the blood of Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Grapes of Wrath, Blood of Life

A striking phrase that appears several times in the Old Testament is "the blood of the grape." Although there are numerous references to the blood of human beings and animals, the juice of no other fruit is definitely used to symbolize blood. For example, no phrase such as "the blood of the pomegranate" ever occurs. (Although the Douay-Rheims version translates a relevant phrase in 1 Maccabees 6:34 as "the blood of grapes, and mulberries," the comma makes it ambiguous whether "mulberries" falls under the rubric of "blood," as "grapes" certainly does.) Let us examine the contexts of these vintage metaphors about blood.

First, Jacob prophesied on his deathbed of his son Judah (Gn 49:11, RSV): "Binding his foal to the vine and his ass’s colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes." Since Jesus Christ descended from Judah (Mt 1:1-3; Lk 3:33) and was born in "Bethlehem in the land of Judah" (Mt 2:1, 4-6; Mi 5:2), Jacob’s prophecy seems to mean that the true spiritual progeny of Israel (through his son Judah) are those who adhere to the divine Grapevine and "have washed their robes . . . in the blood of the Lamb" (Rv 7:14, RSV).

Second, Moses uttered an astonishing statement that can be construed as a sacramental prefiguring applicable to the New Israel (Dt 32:14, RSV): "and of the blood of the grape you drank wine." That this clause is eucharistic can be inferred from the immediately preceding phrase of the same verse: "with the finest of the wheat" (The connection of the identical words occurring in both Psalm 81:16 and Psalm 147:14 with the eucharistic body of Christ was explained in my previous article, "Why Wheat Bread?").

Third, in a summary of things "basic to all the needs of man’s life," Sirach 39:26 (RSV) lists the substances "water," "wheat flour," and "the blood of the grape"—but no other kind of grain or fruit. Hence, based on Scripture, these materials are the most suitable for our sacramental spiritual life.

Fourth, within a lengthy ode of praise of Simon the high priest, Sirach 50:14 (RSV) depicts his "service at the altars, and arranging the offering to the Most High, the Almighty." The narrative continues with what sounds like a foreshadowing of the Mass, when the priest offers to the Father the mystical re-enactment of the sacrifice of his Son’s blood on the cross: "he reached out his hand to the cup and poured a libation of the blood of the grape; he poured it out at the foot of the altar, a pleasing odor to the Most High, the King of all" (see Mal 1:11, Eph 5:2). This verse once again corroborates our conclusion about the contents of the Last Supper "cup" containing the "fruit of the vine": The "drink" that Christ declared to be his blood "poured out for you" (Lk 22:17, 20) was the result of a conversion of grape wine.

Fifth, in some biblical passages the trio of grapes, wine, and blood plays a part in the theme of divine vindication for evil. In this connection, Isaiah 49:26 speaks of God’s foes as being "drunk with their own blood as with wine," while Isaiah 63:1-6 contains an extended metaphor relating divine wrath and vengeance to a "wine press" out of which pours the "lifeblood" of unrighteous peoples. This theme continues into the New Testament in Revelation 14:17-20, where an angel is commanded to take a "sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe." The angel then "gathered the vintage of the earth, and threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God," so that "blood flowed from the wine press" over a wide region. Divine justice demands as much for punishment of, and redemption from, transgressions: "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22, RSV; cf. 13:11-12). But the interesting thing here is the blood’s affiliation with grape wine. This association sheds light on our Lord’s words at the Last Supper regarding the cup of wine and the outpouring of his blood for the forgiveness of sins as the inauguration of the New Covenant (Mt 26:27-28; Mk 14:23-24; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25-26).

The Anticipated Mass

Returning to prefigurement of the Mass, we read in Isaiah 62:9 (NAB): "You who gather the grapes shall drink the wine in the courts of my sanctuary." This verse seems to be a symbolic prophecy concerning God’s "courtly" subjects (the Church’s members, according to 1 Pt 2:9; Rv 1:6, 5:10) gathered before the "sanctuary" at Mass, who "drink the wine" previously produced from "grapes," now changed into Christ’s blood (thanks to the power of his ordained ministers).

Equally profound is the passage Amos 9:13-14 (NAB): "The juice of grapes shall drip down the mountains, and all the hills shall run with it. . . . Plant vineyards and drink the wine." This prophecy can also be interpreted as referring to the consecration and Communion at Mass, where the precious blood of Christ flows abundantly. (His blood initially flowed on Mount Calvary, thence taking its course from Jerusalem to the "hills" of Rome.) Thus, to drink Christ’s blood ("the wine") requires grapes, since the fruit must be picked from "vineyards." Isaiah 5:1-4 and Micah 6:15 likewise explicitly associate wine with grapes (and vines), while Genesis 40:9-11 links the terms "vine," "grapes," and "cup," the latter filled with liquid pressed from grapes. (See also Jer 6:9, 8:13.)

A final crucial passage is found in Judges 6, which recounts an angelic apparition to Gideon, who "was beating out wheat in the wine press" (v. 11). This valiant man, commissioned by God to rescue Israel from a terrible enemy, is a type or character prefiguring Jesus, sent by the Father to save mankind from slavery to sin and bondage to death. Gideon made unleavened cakes of flour (evidently wheaten), which the angel caused to be consumed by fire on a rock. This episode mystically foreshadows the passion of Christ, whose body (symbolized by the bread derived from threshed wheat) was beaten to the point of an outpouring of blood (signified by the wine press), and then immolated on Mount Calvary (represented by the fiery oblation on the rock). The eucharistic elements of wheat flour and grape wine are now interwoven. From this and all the preceding scriptural arguments, we deduce that the Church has no biblical authority whatsoever to substitute other materials for offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Consequence of Matter

So, how does the Church address the possible problem of alcoholism? Could grape juice from a supermarket shelf be sacramentally adequate? No: A process of maturation or a "time-element" appears necessary from Scripture. After all, Christ came to earth and underwent his Passion in the "fullness of time" (D-R), or the "right time" and "proper time" (RSV), or the "fitting time" (NAB)—see Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8:6; Wisdom 18:14-15; Romans 5:6; Galatians 4:4; 1 Timothy 2:6; Hebrews 1:1-2.

In addition, Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18:2 portray the consumption of insufficiently ripened grapes in a negative way, as though it would be harmful (see also Jb 15:33). Let us explore this delicate matter further.

According to Heribert Jone’s Moral Theology: " Wine is lawful matter if it is unadulterated, fermented, unspoiled and clear" (359). If any extra alcohol be added "the better to preserve the wine," then "it is required . . . that the alcohol be derived from grapes." The grapes must be "ripe" (357).

There is, however, a practically non-alcoholic beverage derived from grapes called mustum. This term is defined in the document Norms for Use of Low-Gluten Bread and Mustum, promulgated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (August 22, 1994): "By ‘mustum’ is understood fresh juice from grapes or juice preserved by suspending its fermentation (by means of freezing or other methods which do not alter its nature)" (§II:C). The prefect at the time, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, issued a more precise clarification of mustum in a circular letter (June 19, 1995) addressed to presidents of episcopal conferences. He elaborated that for grape juice to qualify as mustum, there must be no interference with its inherent tendency to ferment, even if the actual fermentation process is "arrested at an early stage." This restriction would, for instance, exclude pasteurization, which entails enzymatic destruction. (So much for supermarket grape juice.) What matters is that the beverage retain as nearly as possible the intrinsic characteristics of grape wine.

St. Thomas Aquinas offered a more detailed explanation. In Summa Theologiae, the Angelic Doctor draws a critical distinction:

The juice of unripe grapes is at the stage of incomplete generation, and therefore it has not yet the species of wine: on which account it may not be used for this sacrament. Must, however, has already the species of wine, for its sweetness indicates fermentation which is the result of its natural heat; consequently this sacrament can be made from must. (III:74:5)

He goes on to warn, however, that the direct pouring of juice pressed from grapes into a chalice is prohibited unless truly necessary.

Agreeing with Aquinas’ reasoning, the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law asserts: "Canonists and theologians have commonly held that mustum, or the unfermented juice of ripe grapes, is valid matter for the Eucharist but is gravely illicit except in necessity." When is it necessary and therefore licit (or allowed)? The CDF document Norms for Use of Low-Gluten Bread and Mustum stipulates that "the permission to use mustum can be granted by ordinaries to priests affected by alcoholism or other conditions which prevent the ingestion of even the smallest quantity of alcohol, after presentation of a medical certificate" (II:B). Without this dispensation, such matter is not lawful, because the typical licit matter is completely fermented grape juice—what is ordinarily meant by wine. But full fermentation affects only the liceity (or legality) of the matter—and not its validity—for confecting the blood of Christ, since the second part of the consecration at Mass can truly be accomplished using mustum. In any case, the normative value of fully fermented grape wine, bearing the significance of a mature time-element, still prevails despite such relatively rare exceptions.

Lastly, according to Norms for Use of Low-Gluten Bread and Mustum: "Given the centrality of the celebration of the Eucharist in the life of the priest, candidates for the priesthood who are affected by celiac disease or suffer from alcoholism or similar conditions may not be admitted to holy orders" (III:D). Thus, the above dispensation applies only to a man who has already been ordained and subsequently exhibits symptoms of allergies or alcoholism. This stringent demand shows how seriously Catholic teaching takes the very specific materials required for both valid and licit use in the sacraments. In other words, in the eyes of the Church, matter really does matter.

SIDEBAR

During the consecration, a complete change of substance takes place and only the appearances of bread and wine remain. The changing of the wine takes place at the second part of the consecration, when the priest, acting in the person and at the command of Christ, utters the words he spoke at the Last Supper: "This is my blood." See:

  • Matthew 26:27-28
  • Mark 14:23-24
  • Luke 22:17-18, 20
  • 1 Corinthians 11:25
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church 1375-1377

David P. Lang has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Northeastern University. His articles have appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Faith and Reason, and This Rock.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 2.