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 Pontusl (d. about 270) is the first witness to present the Epiphany to us as the ” saving proclamation of Christ’s Baptism.” (cf. Homily on Christ’s Baptism, 1)
The Feast of the Epiphany was established as a solemn feast in the Eastern Church in the middle of the IV 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.” (cf. Apostolic Constitutions V, 13
1. 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. 1 :26).” (cf. Homily on the Epiphany, 2)
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 … ” (cf. back cover).
The solemn baptism of the catechumens was also administered in the Eastern Church on the eve of the Epiphany since the IV century. The early Fathers of the Church referred to this as the Mystery of Illumination or Enlightenment (0. SI. ” Prosvischenije” ). Thus the Epiphany was also called The Feast of Lights or The Day of Illumination (cf. St. Gregory of Nazianz, Oration XL, 1-6).
Following this, our liturgicai books still call the Sunday before and after Epiphany the Sunday before the Illumination and the Sunday after the 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.” (cf. Migne, P.G. 65, 757-761)
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.
2. The Solemn Blessing of Water, in commemoration of Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan, is the main feature of the Feast of Epiphany. St. Gregory the Wonderworker, in the homily quoted above, commented: “The Lord, Who has come upon the Jordan River, through its streams transmitted sanctification to all streams (of water).” And precisely, in our liturgical books, the blessing of water is referred to as The Blessing of Jordan (0. SI. ” Osvjaschenije Jordanovo” ), since it is considered as the re-enactment of Christ’s baptism. By His baptism in the Jordan, Our Saviour imparted upon water a mystical power of sanctification, a ” sign of heavenly streams” of divine grace. (cf. St. Gregory the Wonderworker, Ibid.)
st. Basil the Great (d. 379) affirms that the blessing of water came to us as a ” mystical tradition” (ct. On the Holy Spirit, XXVII, 66) and that the water, through the prayer and b!essing of the priest, receives a ” quickening power of the Holy Spirit.” (Ibid. , XV, 35) St. Ambrose (d. 397) also taught that it was the Holy Spirit Who “consecrated the waters through the prayer of the minister.” (cf. On the Holy Spirit, L. I. c. VII, 88) Consequently, in the prayer for the blessing of the water we always find the epiklesis-the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
3. The oldest prayer for the blessing of the water was preserved for us in The Euchologion of Serapion (d. after 362), the Bishop of Thmuis in lower Egypt. 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, VII I, 39, attribute the authorship of the first prayer for the blessing of water to St. Matthias the Apostle.
According to Armenian sources, 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.” (cf. Migne, P.G., 49, 336)
It seems that St. Basil’s ritual was later revised by St. Proclus of Constantinople (434-447) and, finally, by St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) who composed the introductory sticheras and rearranged the entire ritual according to the customs of the Alexandrian Church. For this reason, our present ritual of The Solemn Blessing of Water is ascribed to St. Sophronius of Jerusalem (cf. Goar, Euchologion, p. 369 & n.).
Our Trebnik contains another ritual for blessing water called The Simple Blessing of Water. This ceremony can be taken at any time of the year but it is used especially on the first day of August (in commemoration of the Holy Cross) and also on the occasion of a pilgrimage. An example of this is the custom of blessing the water at the Lourdes Grotto at Mount St. Macrina in Uniontown, Pa. during the annual Assumption Pilgrimage.
4. The Solemn Blessing of Water according to the liturgical prescriptions should take place on the Eve of the Epiphany. However, the presently prevailing custom is to bless the water on the Feast of the Epiphany itself, immediately after the “True Light” of the world (In. 1 :9) stepped down into the waters of the Jordan as the ” Lamb who took away the sins of the world” (In. 1 :29) 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)
This also reminds us of our own baptism and our commitment to Christ.
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 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 SPIRIT.”
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.” (cf. Prayer) 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 . .. ” (cf. back cover) 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 Divine Liturgy, when the majority of the parish faithful are present. 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. This is described in the sticheras of St. Sophronius which are sung during the procession to the stream or river.
In the ritual , after the incensing of the water, the scriptural readings of the prophecies (Is. 35 : 1-10; 55:1-13; 12:3-6), the Epistle (I Cor. 10:1-4) and the Gospel (Mk. 1 :9-11) are taken. In his Gospel, St. Mark informs us that as Our Lord Jesus Christ was coming out of the river, the “heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon Him as a dove. And a voice came from heaven, saying: ‘You are my Beloved Son and my favor rests on You!'” 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. The Ektenia ends with the long prayer of the consecration of the water, now ascribed to St. Sophronius, entitled Poem or Hymn (Gr. poiema). This prayer is indeed a poem in praise of the mysteries of the Epiphany and the regeneration of all creation through Jesus Christ.
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 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.
5. Among the various petitions mentioned in the ceremony during the blessing of the water is the sanctification of homes. With this the Church imposes a duty and obligation upon the priests to bless the homes of the faithful entrusted to thei r pastoral care at the beginning of the New Year. Theologically speaking, the blessing of homes constitutes an invocative blessing, meaning that by his prayer and by the sprinkling of the Holy Water the priest invokes God’s protection upon the home and those living in it. The prayer, reprinted on the back cover, best explains its meaning.
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)