Friday, January 6, 2012

Holy Theophany and the Blessing of the Waters

Today marks the end of the Nativity season with the celebration of Theophany, which celebrates the baptism of Christ by St. John the Forerunner.  This feast is notable for us as new Orthodox Christians for two reasons.  First, it returns us to the practice of celebrating all 12 days of Christmas instead of just the first of those 12.  Second, it also marks the blessing of the waters, where the priest commemorates the Lord's baptism by blessing water by saying prayers over it, making the sign of the cross over it, and submerging a hand cross in it.  One of the prayers is as follows:

"And grant [this water] the grace of redemption and the blessing of the Jordan. Make it a fount of incorruptibility, a gift for sanctification, a redemption for sins, a elixir for maladies, a destroyer of demons, unapproachable by the adverse powers and full of angelic powers; so that to all who drink there from and receive thereof it may be for the sanctification of their souls and bodies, for the healing of sufferings, for the sanctification of homes and for every befitting benefit. For Thou art our God Who with water and the Spirit renewed our nature made old by sin. Thou art our God Who didst drown sin in the water at the time of Noah. Thou art our God Who in the sea didst deliver the Hebrews from the bondage of Pharaoh at the hands of Moses. Thou art our God Who didst cleave the rock in the wilderness, so that the waters gushed out and the valleys overflowed, thus satisfying Thy thirsty people. Thou art our God Who with fire and water didst deliver Israel from the error of Baal at the hands of Elisha."
What a beautiful demonstration that all of Scripture is a seamless whole!  In this way, the Feast carries with it the understanding that in Christ's baptism, there was not merely a sign or symbol of salvation, but something very real happening.  In this act, Christ, Who knew no sin, went into the water meant for sinners and redeemed it, literally made it holy with it all of creation.  Therefore, some priests will also hold a service at a local river where a cross is submerged in the river, another demonstration that all of creation was redeemed by Christ.  Therefore, water for us is an instrument not only of earthly life, but spiritual life as well.

The holy water is sprinkled around the entire parish, including on every member of the parish, a small amount is drank by each member of the parish, and if they wish, parishioners may bring bottles to take some home for devotional use.  We use it (mostly by drinking it) during prayers, before travel, during times of distress or ill health, or at any other time when we feel we need a particular blessing.  It is not "Sacramental" in a strict, Western sense.  But in Orthodoxy, life itself is Sacramental, and this is an extension of that belief.

Troparion (Tone 1)
When Thou, O Lord were baptized in the river Jordan
The worship of the Trinity was made manifest
For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee
And called Thee His beloved Son.
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
Confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
O Christ, our God, Thou has revealed Thyself
And have enlightened the world, glory to Thee!
Kontakion (Tone 4)
Today Thou has shown forth to the world, O Lord,
and the light of Thy countenance has been marked on us.
Knowing Thee, we sing Thy praises.
You have come and revealed Thyself,
O unapproachable Light.

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