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Week 3: Theophany - Blessing of the Waters

Reflection by Lic. Elias Crisostomo Abramides

And when Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”

Matthew 3:16-17

In Holy Tradition and in the Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Churches water has a profound symbolic presence. Water in the sacrament of baptism is intimately related to the Feast of the Theophany. Celebrated on 6 January, Theophany (from the Greek theophania, meaning "appearance or manifestation of God to the world"), is one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. It reveals the most Holy Trinity to the world through the Baptism of the Lord in the waters of the river Jordan by John the Baptist, the forerunner.  It marks the end of one of the holiest times in the ecclesiastical calendar, the “Holy Twelve Days” between the birth of the Logos, our God and Saviour Jesus Christ, on 25 December, and Theophany, when the three persons of the most Holy Trinity are present during his baptism.

The celebration begins on 5 January, the “Forefeast of Theophany”, when the service of the first Blessing of the Waters is conducted (mikros agiasmos) following the Holy Liturgy.  On 6 January the Holy Liturgy is followed by the second Blessing of the Waters (megas agiasmos). In the Southern Hemisphere the ceremony takes place in summer, but in the Northern Hemisphere in winter. In either case, it is a traditional and joyful ceremony that affirms Orthodox Christian identity.

The ceremony of the Holy Water is conducted inside the church but if possible, across  the world, it mostly takes place near open bodies of water: a river, a lake or by the sea. As a sign of blessing just as Christ blessed the waters of the Jordan, Holy Water is poured into a body of water (a lake, river, pond or stream) and a cross is plunged into the water (being retrieved later by divers who in this way are blessed).

Holy Water blessed at the Feast of Theophany is given to the faithful to drink for health, and for the blessing of the body. In the weeks following Theophany, the clergy may visit the home of the faithful and conduct a ceremony of blessing using the Holy Water that was blessed at Theophany.

We have been baptized in Holy Water: holy because it was blessed, holy because it sustains life, holy because it is the cradle and essence of all life. Through baptism we became Christians, having been baptized in the Holy Spirit of God. The central message we receive from the Feast of Theophany is this: Jesus is baptized but we are also, baptized in His name and in the name of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit.

The blessing of the water at the Feast of Theophany is a visible sign that all creation is to be filled with the holy-making presence of God. Even when polluted water is thus blessed, the Orthodox Church must still regard it as “holy water”. This anomaly—or antinomy—points to the scandalous difference between the Orthodox view of the holiness of creation and the human desecration of this gift of God.

To conclude, I quote His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s message when in 2005, he stated:"... Water, then, signifies the depth of life and the calling to cosmic transfiguration. It can never be regarded or treated as private property or become the means and end of individual interest. Indifference towards the vitality of water constitutes both a blasphemy to God the Creator and a crime against humanity".

2010 is one of the years when all Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour, on the same day. As we meditate on the message of Theophany during these Seven Weeks for Water and through this holy period of Lent in preparation for Easter, may our common celebration of Easter this year be a symbol of unity among Christians and also of our common concern for the holiness of water.

Lic. Elias Crisostomo Abramides of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Buenos Aires and South America lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is also a member of the World Council of Churches’ Working Group on Climate Change.

Together we can make a difference:

  • Contemplate the richness of water as a liturgical symbol in our different Christian traditions, and other religions, while taking in the photo story showing the celebration of Theophany at the Orthodox Monastery of New Valamo in Heinävesi in Finland:

  • Consider organizing a discussion or a workshop on the meaning and use of water providing a space for exchange among the various Christian traditions where you live, maybe also with representatives of other religions?

Posted By: Maike Gorsboth on Mar 01, 2010 12:00AM Add Comment