When I was in college, my undergraduate major was in International Relations, with a focus in Soviet and East European affairs. I studied Russian language, literature and culture (among other things), and was fortunate enough to spend a summer in the Soviet Union, as it was still called in those days. This inevitably brought me into contact with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is so much a part of Russian history and culture, and has witnessed a rather remarkable resurgence since the fall of communism. While the Orthodox Church is a bit too rigid for me, and has a rather difficult attitude toward the role of women in the life of the church, there is much about Orthodox spirituality and liturgy that I admire and appreciate. My explorations into the tradition of the Orthodox Churches led me to a discovery — an epiphany, if you will — about Epiphany, the feast which we celebrate today (Wednesday, January 6).
In The Episcopal Church, Epiphany is all about the three wise ones who come to find the baby Jesus, and the Baptism of Jesus is treated separately (it is celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany). In the Orthodox Churches, Epiphany (which they call Theophany) really focuses on the Baptism of Jesus, and so as part of their celebration, a lot of water gets blessed. And I’m talking about serious water-blessing here. Typically, on the eve of Epiphany/Theophany, there is an evening service at which water is blessed in the church, and sprinkled upon the people as a form of blessing and as a kind of renewal of everyone’s baptismal experience. On the day of Epiphany/Theophany itself, there is typically a morning service, after which congregations will process from their churches to the nearest river or large body of water. Gathered at the side of said body of water, there will then be a blessing of that water — and through it, all water everywhere on earth. In many places, a centuries-old Greek tradition will then be observed: a large cross will be thrown into the water, and a group of young men will dive into the water to find it. The one who finds it first earns great honor and distinction. So popular is this tradition that it is even observed in places that are much colder than Greece is this time of year.
This tradition of blessing the waters outside the church, and not just inside, was an epiphany for me, in that it makes a rather dramatic environmental statement. I am accustomed to thinking about the Baptism of Jesus as really being about the act of baptism, and what it means. But the Orthodox have developed this tradition of focusing on the stuff in which Jesus was baptized, and in doing so, they have made an explicit connection between baptism and water. The Baptism of Jesus was not only about Jesus, but it was also about the water — that Jesus’ sacred encounter with God in the waters of baptism extended a blessing to the waters themselves, and to the whole of creation. For the Orthodox, baptism not only gives us a new relationship with God, but a new relationship with all of creation. It makes me think of that line from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which he says that creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19). A link is created, both by St. Paul and by this Orthodox tradition, between us and the created world. In order for creation to be “saved” from abuse and degradation, we ourselves must be “saved” from the self-centeredness that convinces us that the environment doesn’t require our care.
So, as we celebrate Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus, remember this Orthodox tradition of blessing the waters, and think about the way in which we can be those children of God who extend blessing and grace to all creation.
Oh, and by the way, the Russians aren’t celebrating Epiphany today — they are celebrating Christmas! They will celebrate Epiphany/Theophany 12 days from now. The rest of the Orthodox world is celebrating Epiphany today, though — ah, the church can indeed be a complex mystery.