Growing up in an Orthodox Christian home, my family faithfully observed the celebration of Epiphany. My mother would take my brother and me to the Divine Liturgy and Blessing of the Waters service at Sts. Constantine and Helen Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio.
My first recollection of this feast day was with Fr. Peter Kyriakos of blessed memory. During the service Fr. Peter would bless the entire congregation with Holy Water. As children we found this immensely pleasurable — being sprinkled with Holy Water would make us smile and giggle. Imagine water gently hitting your face and hair, and inside the church! Upon seeing us react our mother would smile and kindly whisper, “The Holy Water is for your health.” I am sure she meant for our salvation, but at that time we didn’t understand the concept.
Celebrating Epiphany in the Orthodox Church is profoundly important! It has been celebrated since the earliest centuries of the Church. Epiphany means “the showing forth” or “the manifestation” and marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry on earth. The term Theophany more accurately describes the manifestation of God and the revelation of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to the world. The Epiphany or Theophany feast is celebrated on Jan. 6, with forefeast services offered on Jan. 5; the Blessing of the Waters is performed both days. January 5 is a strict fast day, a day of preparation for this momentous feast. The hymns for the forefeast focus on the readiness of all creation for the presence of Jesus Christ:
Make ready, river Jordan: for behold, Christ our God draws near to be baptized by John, that He may crush with His divinity the invisible heads of the dragons in the waters. Rejoice, wilderness of Jordan; dance with gladness, mountains. For the eternal Life has come to call back Adam.
(Vespers of the Forefeast)
Emphasis is placed upon the greatness of the One who comes–first for the river Jordan, then for the whole creation, and especially for Adam and his children. Through His baptism, Christ sanctifies all creation.
At the moment of Jesus’s baptism, two revelations occur. Two fundamental truths of our faith are proclaimed: God as Trinity and Jesus Christ as both God and Man. God in His love and mercy has revealed Himself to us. God, who is beyond all our ability to know, comes to us and reveals Himself that we may commune with Him. These theological truths are beautifully expressed in the hymn of the day:
Lord, when You were baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father gave witness to You, calling You Beloved; and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the certainty of His words. Glory to You, Christ our God, who appeared and enlightened the world.
Even today, the chanting of this beautiful hymn brings tears to my eyes and warms my heart.
My thoughts always return to my childhood where I would hear my mother chanting this joyful yet solemn hymn along with our priest.
Following the church service, the faithful approach the priest to be blessed with Holy Water and receive a vial to bring home and share with family. The vial of Holy Water can be placed on the family iconostasis to be used with reverence and faith throughout the year.
The Epiphany season offers another important opportunity for the family. Inviting the priest into the home for a house blessing creates a family tradition connecting the Church and home. The visit can become a family affair where children participate by cleaning their bedrooms, singing the hymn of the feast, and praying with their parish spiritual father.
These are important tasks! Holy Water is a form of God’s grace: it cleanses, sanctifies, and strengthens us in the spiritual struggle towards salvation.
Positive and loving memories of the Faith in the home can become embedded in our children’s hearts and souls and help direct them to a more focused life in Christ.
Celebrating the baptism of our Lord gives us an opportunity to reflect on our own baptisms. As we observe this feast in our home, let us challenge ourselves with the words of St. Nektarios:
“Christians, have we understood the great responsibility that we have taken on before God through baptism? Have we come to know that we must conduct ourselves as children of God, that we must align our will with the will of God, that we must remain free from sin, that we must love God with all our hearts and always patiently await union with Him?
Have we thought about the fact that our heart should be so filled with love that it should overflow to our neighbor?”
Angie Giallourakis, PhD, is the Resource Coordinator for the Center for Family Care.