OLPH Church
Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Byzantine Catholic Church

Theophany and Blessing of Water

One of the most impressive ceremonies of the Byzantine Rite is the Solemn Blessing of the Water on the Feast of the Epiphany commemorating Christ's baptism in the River Jordan. The Epiphany, one of the most ancient and venerable festivities, originated in Palestine where it was celebrated with a vigil and special services on the spot where, according to Christian tradition, Our Lord was actually baptized. St. Gregory the Wonderworker [of Pontus] (d. about 270) is the first witness to present the Epiphany to us as the “saving proclamation of Christ's Baptism." The Feast of the Epiphany was established as a solemn feast in the Eastern Church in the middle of the 4th century as proclaimed in the Apostolic Constitutions: "Let the Epiphany, in which the Lord manifested to us His own divinity, be to you the most honored festival and let it be celebrated on the sixth day of January."

The Greek word "epiphany" means manifestation and applied by the Christians to the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, it specifically meant the manifestation of His divinity. St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) elucidates: "Why do we call this day Epiphany? Because, Jesus Christ manifested Himself to all people, not when He was born, but, rather, when He was baptized. Until that time He was unknown to the people, as testified by St. John the Baptist, saying, 'There stands among you One, Whom you don't know!'

In the Old Slavonic, the feast is called "Bohojavlenije," equivalent to the Greek "Theophany,” which means the manifestation of the Godhead. This word, however, more clearly reflects the manifestation of the Blessed Trinity at Christ’s baptism as poetically described in the Troparion of the Feast: "At Your baptism in the Jordan ...” The solemn baptism of the catechumens was also administered in the Eastern Church on the eve of the Epiphany since the 4th century. The early Fathers of the Church referred to this as the Mystery of Illumination or Enlightenment. Thus the Epiphany was also called The Feast of Lights or The Day of Illumination. St. Proclus, the Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 447), gives us the following explanation: "Christ manifested Himself to the world; He filled it with light and joy; He sanctified the waters and diffused His light in the souls of men." Since the solemn blessing of the water takes place on Epiphany, the feast is also known as the Feast of the Blessing of Water, popularly called "Vodokschi," an abbreviated form of the Old Slavonic term "Vodokresch," meaning the blessing of water.

The oldest prayer for the blessing of the water was preserved for us in The Euchologion of Serapion. It is almost certain that the prayer itself dates back well before his time and is also witness to the early practice of the Church. The Apostolic Constitutions attribute the authorship of the first prayer for the blessing of water to St. Matthias the Apostle.

The original author of our ritual of the Solemn Blessing of Water was St. Basil the Great who composed it during his visit in Jerusalem in 377 A.D. This ritual was probably used in Antioch in 387 when St. John Chrysostom delivered his homily on the Baptism of Christ, saying: "This is the day on which Christ was baptized and through His baptism sanctified the element of water. Wherefore, at midnight on this feast, all (faithful) draw of the (holy) water and store it in their homes, because on this day the water is consecrated." In the Old Country, it was a custom to go in procession to the nearest stream or river to perform the ritual of the Blessing of the Water. A stream symbolizes the living waters of the Jordan River where Our Saviour came to be baptized by St. John.

In the ritual, after the incensing of the water, the lighted triple  candle, called “Trojca;" which is held in front of the celebrant during the Gospel, is a reminder of that mystical manifestation of the Blessed Trinity at the baptism of Christ. The intonation of the Ektenia of Peace, into which special petitions are inserted, follows. In these petitions we implore God to sanctify these waters by the "descent of the Holy Spirit" in order that they may bring to us the "blessing of the Jordan," defend us against the snares of the devil, heal our spiritual and physical weaknesses, sanctify our homes, and fill us with the graces of the Holy Spirit.

During this prayer, when the celebrant comes to the words: "GREAT ARE YOU, 0 LORD, AND WONDERFUL ARE YOUR WORKS, AND OUR WORDS ARE INSUFFICIENT TO PRAISE YOUR WONDERS," he blesses the water with the burning triple candle, the "Trojca," by dipping it into the water while saying the words. This he does three times, repeating the words, and dipping in one of the three candles of the "Trojca" each time. This is done in commemoration of Our Lord's baptism, when He, the Son of God, the "True Light" of the world stepped down into the waters of the Jordan as the "Lamb who took away the sins of the world" in order to wash them away by Baptism. The Greek word "baptism" originally means a dipping in water, an immersion. The ceremony of dipping the candle is taken three times for Baptism is bestowed on us "in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (Mt. 28:19)

Continuing the prayer, the celebrant repeats the words: "THEREFORE YOU, 0 LOVING KING, COME TO US ALSO NOW THROUGH THE DESCENT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT AND SANCTIFY THIS WATER" three times, each time breathing over the water in the form of a cross, the gesture re of exorcism, purifying the water from the contamination and influence of the evil powers. Then the celebrant, continuing the prayer, makes the sign of the cross in the water three times with his fingers, each time repeating the words: "THEREFORE ALSO NOW, 0 MASTER, SANCTIFY THIS WATER BY YOUR HOLY SPIR- IT." This liturgical gesture symbolizes the blessing of Jordan, as though Jesus Christ Himself comes and touches the waters in order that to all who are "sprinkled with it, drink of it, or wash with it" it may bring "sanctification, healing, cleansing and blessing." After imparting the blessing of peace to the faithful, the celebrant immerses the holy cross (generally a wooden cross) into the water three times and each time intones the troparion, "At Your baptism in the Jordan ...” which is completed by the cantor and the faithful. This final part of the ceremony symbolizes the manifestation of the Holy Trinity as Jesus Christ [the Second Person] stepped out of the water, described in a poetic way by the Troparion.

Following this, the concluding stichera, "Let us, the faithful sing ...” is sung by the people while the celebrant sprinkles the altar and the walls of the church with the freshly blessed water. When the priest returns, the faithful come up in single file to kiss the holy cross and to be sprinkled with the newly blessed water, conferring upon them the blessing of the Jordan as a token of their redemption. During the kissing of the cross, the faithful continue to sing the Troparion and the Kontakion of the Feast and fill their containers with the newly blessed [Holy] water to take to their homes.

It is a custom among our people to drink of the Holy Water for the "purification of their souls and bodies and cure of their weakness." This custom is very ancient and came to us with the ritual itself. The taking of the Holy Water to their homes is to have in it a fount of continued blessings and protection against all evil.

Among the various petitions mentioned in the ceremony during the blessing of the water is the sanctification of homes. As our souls, so also our homes become tainted by the sins of those living in them and, consequently, lose God's protective power. Every year, then, at the Feast of the Epiphany, they should be blessed again to secure for them God's blessings and protection. Just as the faithful cleanse their soul of sin at least once a year, and the church is blessed with the newly blessed water every year, so should the homes of the faithful be yearly blessed to invoke God's blessings and protection on it and its inhabitants. As we renew the insurance on our home every year, so we should renew our insurance of God’s protection and his blessing which is of greater importance and more effective. As we welcome our priest during the holy season of Epiphany to bless our home, let us be mindful that he is bringing to us the "blessing of Jordan," and that unless God protect and bless our home, we "labor in vain." (Ps.127:1)