At Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, fantastic combinations of color, light and sound bombard our senses. From the light of the star to the sound of the angelic hosts, we are transfixed by the majesty of the event.
On Thursday, many Orthodox Christians celebrate another glorious feast of light and sound, the Feast of Theophany — also known as Epiphany. Historically, Theophany is one of the oldest commemorations in Christian Tradition, predating Christmas by several hundred years.
Theophany is a Greek word, which means the shining forth and manifestation of God, and commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist. This event is much more than the singular remembrance of an event. The baptism is the first “public” manifestation of Jesus Christ to the world.
While Christ entered into the Jordan to be baptized, two things were happening: He was identifying himself with the people he had come to save; and he was identifying himself with the whole of Creation, which was represented by water. Through his baptism, the Lord revealed the value of the created world, and he redirected the world toward its Creator. Creation is good and belongs to God.
Water, as the pinnacle element of Creation, has always had a special religious meaning for Christians. Christ himself stressed its importance: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
In accordance with our Lord’s words, water is blessed during the Orthodox Sacrament of Baptism, and it becomes the means of our initiation and rebirth in Christ.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the role of water also is highlighted during this Feast of Theophany when the church celebrates the rite known as “The Great Blessing of Water.” “Grant sanctification, blessing, purification and health unto all who are sprinkled and anointed with this holy water, and unto all who shall drink of it” is a passage from this rite.
During this service, water is blessed and designated as “holy water.” In addition, like the baptismal waters, this water also becomes an instrument of spiritual renewal and sanctification.
The Scriptures lay great stress upon this sanctifying role of water. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we find God using water as a means of purification and grace: Water is shown to manifest spiritual power and force; it is looked upon as a vehicle of Divine mercy and love; it is recognized as conveying health and life, cleansing and purity; it is known to regenerate spiritual vitality in man.
Conversely, Orthodox faithful look upon this “blessed water” with a special attitude and belief. They acknowledge this possibility of receiving God’s blessings through its use. The faithful drink this water; they are blessed with it; their homes and other objects are sprinkled with it. Moreover, through these ritualistic actions, they find it possible to experience the Divine Presence.
In keeping with the Tradition of Feast of Theophany, the Eastern Orthodox Clergy Association of the Mahoning Valley will celebrate the Great Blessing of Water at the Lake Glacier at Mill Creek MetroPark. This service will take place at 3 p.m. Thursday. For more information on this event, send e-mail to email@example.com or visit the calendar page of the Eastern Orthodox Clergy Association website at www.orthodox-youngstown.org.
The Rev. Andrew D. Nelko is pastor of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Campbell.