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.