It is Epiphany, or Theophany in Eastern Christendom. Water features strongly in this liturgy; it is the occasion of the Great Blessing Of The Waters. This video, seven years old, is visually and aurally pretty stunning in its depiction of this ceremony in Alaska (in a quite interesting environmentalist context of renewed interest in the Trump presidency):
I’d like to share extracts from a few thought-provoking Theophany posts by Adam deVille at Eastern Christian Books.
On Theophany, I am put in mind of a passage about this loveliest of feasts from Evelyn Waugh’s wonderfully funny and deeply moving historical novel, Helena, which he regarded as his greatest work, and was, according to his finest biographer Douglas Lane Patey, the only of his books he cared to have read aloud:
Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too find room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were no lower in the eyes of the Holy Family than the ox or the ass…. For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.
Thus spoke the richest and most powerful woman in the ancient world, the Dowager Empress Helena, about the Magi and their wealthy if superfluous gifts (in a passage, Patey tells us, which Waugh wrote in the 1950s to offend socialist sentiment in Britain under what he alternately called the “Atlee terror” and the “grey lice” of the Labour government, an “occupying power”).
Today, the ancient and wonderful feast of the Theophany (about which see Nick Denysenko’s book here), will often see many Eastern Christians carving crosses out of ice near newly blessed bodies of water, and then hurling wooden hand crosses into those waters to make of them an offering back to their Creator. This seems a quintessentially Christian ritual, but how was it handled in the Muslim world, where so many Eastern Christians lived and live?
I count it a success in my courses on Eastern Christian encounters with Islam when my students come to appreciate how often the boundaries were more blurred than they realize, or are often thought to be today. I tell them that they should leave the course recognizing that questions of identity, historically situated, are far messier than many thought, and that borrowings of, or at least attendance at, ritual practices of the “other’s” community, happened more than we might realize.
Examples of this include some Muslims venerating Christian relics and praying in Christian shrines, and Christians attending Muslim village festivals, some evidence of which is to be found in such fascinating works as I noted here.
On this lovely festival of the Lord’s appearing and his baptism in the Jordan by John, I refer you once more to the landmark scholarly work of my friend Nicholas Denysenko, whom I interviewed here about his book, The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition (Ashgate, 2012), 237pp.
About this book the publisher tells us:
This book examines the historical development of the blessing of waters and its theology in the East, with an emphasis on the Byzantine tradition. Exploring how Eastern Christians have sought these waters as a source of healing, purification, and communion with God, Denysenko unpacks their euchology and ritual context. The history and theology of the blessing of waters on Epiphany is informative for contemporary theologians, historians, pastors and students. Offering important insights into how Christians renew Baptism in receiving the blessed waters, this book also proposes new perspectives for theologizing Christian stewardship of ecology in the modern era based on a patristic liturgical synthesis. Denysenko presents an alternative framework for understanding the activity of the Trinity, enabling readers to encounter a vision of how participants encounter God in and after ritual.
The interview with Denysenko mentioned above is here