No prayer service of the Christian East is perhaps as memorable as the feast of Theophany, or the Baptism of Jesus, celebrated today by Eastern Christians who follow the Julian calendar. (Eastern Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar celebrate Theophany on 6 January.)
In the Christian East, this is the feast when water is blessed, unlike in the West, where water is blessed during the Easter Vigil. Theophany is usually celebrated over two days. On the eve of the feast, water is blessed in church during an evening vigil service. This holy water is intended for use in the parish and for the faithful to bottle and bring home for personal use.
On the feast day, it is typical for the faithful to gather with their priest by a large natural body of water, such as a pond, lake or river, where the priest will lead the faithful in the Great Blessing of Water.
As part of the rite, the priest will breathe on the water, making the shape of the cross with his breath three times. Then, he will make the Sign of the Cross in the water with his right hand three times. With each gesture, he will say a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to descend upon the waters and sanctify them. Finally, in a climactic conclusion to the rite, he will dip or cast a large cross into the water. In some communities, a few brave souls will jump into the waters to retrieve the cross!
Each aspect of this rite is intended to remind Eastern Christians in a highly visual and concrete way that Jesus Christ came into the world to redeem all of creation. On this feast day, Eastern Christians recall that Christ willingly entered into the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. Christ, in turn, sanctified the waters, that all of creation might be sanctified by him.
Blessings of this feast of our Lord!
Laura Ieraci is assistant editor of ONE Magazine.