The Great Blessing Of Water
By V. Rev. Thomas Hopko
The Great Blessing of Water takes place in the Orthodox Church on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, often called, as it is in the Orthodox service books, the Theophany. The word "epiphany" means the shining forth or manifestation or appearance or revelation. The word "Theophany" means the shining forth or manifestation or appearance or revelation of God. The emphasis in the present day celebration is on the appearance of Jesus as the human Messiah of Israel and the divine Son of God, One of the Holy Trinity with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Manifestation of the Messiah
In His baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus manifested Himself for the first time as the Messiah of Israel. At the baptism John refers to Christ by the messianic title of the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." (John 1:29) At this time as well the voice of the Father calls Jesus the "Beloved" which is also a messianic title from the Old Testament. (Isaiah 42:1, Luke 3:22, Mark 1:11) And it is written that the Spirit of God descended and rested upon Jesus, which also shows Him to be the long-awaited Messiah, the Redeemer of the world. (Isaiah 61:1-2, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:33)
Manifestation of the Holy Trinity
In His baptism as well, Jesus is shown to be the divine Son of God, one of the Holy Trinity,
together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Thus the Church sings in its main hymns of the Feast of the Epiphany:
When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan,
the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.
For the voice of the Father bear witness to Thee, calling Thee His Beloved Son.
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
O Christ our God Who hast revealed Thyself,
and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee. (The Troparion)
Today Thou hast appeared to the universe,
and Thy Light, O Lord, hast shone on us,
who with understanding praise Thee: Thou hast come and revealed Thyself,
O Light Unapproachable! (The Kontakion)
The Blessing of Water
The Great Blessing of Water is prescribed in the Church on the Feast of the Epiphany following both the liturgy on the eve of the feast as well as the liturgy on the feast day itself. Usually this blessing is done just once in the churches at the time when most people can be present. It begins with the chanting and censing of the water placed in the center of the church building, surrounded by candles and flowers as the sign of the beautiful world of God's original creation and ultimate glorification through Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Kingdom of God. Sometimes the blessing is done outdoors at a place of natural flowing water.
Sometimes people think that the blessing of water and the practice of drinking it and sprinkling it on everyone and everything is a "paganism" which has falsely and sadly crept into the Christian Church. We know, however, that this ritual was practiced by the People of God in the Old Testament (see John 5 and 7),. and that it continues to exist in the New Testament Church of Christ with a new and very important meaning and significance.
The service of the Great Blessing of Water itself reveals the meaning of the event for the Christian People. The readings from the Holy Scriptures, particularly the messianic words from the Prophecy of Isaiah, and the litanies and prayers and hymns all serve to tell us what the great meaning of the Epiphany, and indeed of the entire Christian Faith, is for us men and our world. We only have to read the service carefully and celebrate it faithfully in the church for this meaning to become evident to our hearts and minds.
Sanctification of the World
It is the faith of Christians that since the Son of God has taken human flesh and has appeared in the world, immersed in the streams of the Jordan River (which is itself full of biblical significance), all flesh and all matter is sanctified and made pure and holy in Him, purged of its death-dealing qualities inherited from the devil and the evil and wickedness of men.
In the Lord's epiphany to the world, all creation becomes good again, indeed "very good," the way that God called it and created it to be in the beginning of time. (Genesis 1:31) For in the beginning the Voice of the Lord spoke, as at the time of Jesus' baptism, and "the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters." (Genesis 1:2) At this time as well the "Breath of Life" was breathing in man and in everything that was made to be alive by God for a life of living communion with Him. (Genesis 1:30, 2:7)
The world and everything in it is indeed "very good." And when it becomes polluted and corrupted and dead, filled with evil and not with God, then God Himself does everything to save it and glorify it once more. This is what Epiphany, and the Great Blessing of Water specifically tells us: that God has saved and glorified by Christ and the Spirit the "very good" creation that He made through the same Christ and the same Spirit in the very beginning of the world.
God Is With Us
The consecration of the waters on the feast of the Epiphany places the entire creation - through its "prime element" of water - in the perspective of the cosmic sanctification and glorification of the Kingdom of God brought to the world by Christ and the Spirit. The Great Blessing of Water tells us that man and the world were indeed created and saved to be "filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19), the "fullness of him who fills all in all." (Ephesians 1:22) It tells us that Christ, in Whom "the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily," is and shall be truly "all in all." (Colossians 2:9, 3:11) It tells us as well that the "new heavens and the new earth" which God has promised through His prophets and apostles are truly "with us"-for God is with us - already now in the mystery of Christ and the Church. (Isaiah 66:22, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1)
Thus the sanctification and drinking and sprinkling of water on the Feast of the Lord's Epiphany is no pagan ritual. It arises from the depths of the biblical and churchly faith and experience of the People of God as the expression of its most central doctrine. It proclaims and it celebrates the deepest conviction and vision of the Christian Faith that man and his world have the vocation and destiny "to be filled with all the fullness of God."
The Blessing of Homes
The central sign of God's sanctification of all things through Christ's epiphany to the world and His baptism in the Jordan River, is the act of blessing the homes of the faithful Christians. On the feast of the Epiphany, the Orthodox priest visits all the members of the Church in order to pray with them in the place where they live, and to bless their surroundings with the sanctified water.
According to the Orthodox Faith, the family is considered to be a "small church," and the family table is the "home altar" where the people gather each day to receive their "daily bread" from God with thanksgiving in the Name of Christ. Thus, during the Epiphany season, the priest, who is the father of the greater "family of God," the Church community, comes to each of the "small churches" bringing the blessings of God the Father and all of the brothers and sisters in Christ.
The sanctification of the home takes place not only by the words of prayer, but by the sprinkling with the blessed water which, as we have seen, stands for the new creation of the Kingdom of God in which God Himself "fills all things with Himself" including even the smallest particles of material existence.
When the priest comes for his annual visit of prayer and blessing, he asks God to have mercy on the house, to rid it of every evil and to fill it with every blessing. All pray together for the good of the living and the dead of the family, and of all who live and have lived in the house. All sing together the great hymn, of salvation that Christ, the Son of the Father by the grace of the Holy Spirit, "has revealed Himself and has enlightened the world." Thus the house itself, together with the living persons of the family, is "filled with all the fullness of God."
When the priest comes to bless the family and its house on Epiphany, although the details of the ceremony will differ according to local custom and tradition, the following general principles should be observed:
- A lighted candle, an icon and a wide bowl for the blessed water should be placed on the table.
- All radios, television sets, phonographs, etc. should be turned off.
- All who are present in the house should come together and stand by the table until the very end of the service.
- Those who are able should join in the singing of the hymns and responses of the service.
- The first names of those for whom special prayers are to be offered, including of course all members of the family and those living in the house, should be clearly printed on a sheet of paper, with the clear distinction between the living and the dead.
- If it is the practice to give a gift to the priest at this time, the people should prepare it beforehand, but should not place it on the table with the holy objects. It should be given to the priest, if such is the custom, at the conclusion of the service.