This past year, we’ve seen the power of water when Hurricane Sandy hit, devastating homes, businesses, and even lives. And yet water remains critical to our existence:
- About 57% of our body weight is water.
- Approximately 88% of 1.8 million deaths a year is attributed to unsafe water supplies and sanitation and hygiene issues. Most of these deaths are in children.
- Water covers about 70% of our planet.
- Africans spend 40 billion hours just walking to get water every year. It is usually women and children who have the responsibility of fetching water, and this arduous task keeps them away from school.
Water is a dichotomy of life and death.
I once saw a priest in Brooklyn throw a cross into the muddy waters of the Hudson. It was a frigid January day, yet a bunch of boys jumped into the river to save the cross.
What would possess a priest to throw a cross into the river?
Theophany; or, as most westerners call it, Epiphany.
The word “Theophany” comes from the Greek “τα Θεοφάνια,” which means “appearance of God,” and January 6 is the feast day that commemorates the incarnation of Jesus. It celebrates His birth and baptism.
When St. John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. God spoke from the heavens, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17, NIV). It marked one of the very few times that all three characters of the Trinity—Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God—revealed themselves at the same time to man.
Jesus’ baptism marks His first step toward Crucifixion, according to Orthodox theology.
And so, on January 6, Orthodox priests throughout the world throw crosses, symbolic of Jesus’ crucifixion, into bodies of water, symbolic of His baptism. This is called the Blessing of the Waters. Volunteers jump into the water to retrieve the cross. The priest, according to tradition, prays a blessing on the person who gets to the cross first and brings it back to him.
Here’s the Troparion (tone 4) from the Eve and Afterfeast hymn, which has some powerful imagery:
The River Jordan receded of old by the mantle of Elisha when Elijah ascended into heaven; and the water was separated to this side and that, the wet element turning into a dry path for Him, being truly a symbol of Baptism, by which we cross the path of transient age. Christ appeared in the Jordan to sanctify its waters.
Parts of this post were first published on my blog in 2011 and 2012.