All good things must come to an end, though, and tonight seems the most fitting day to put Christmas away. Yesterday, for Orthodox families like ours, was Theophany—the twelfth and final day of Christmas, and an important holiday: the commemoration of Christ's baptism. Liturgically, it marks the end of Christmas, and the beginning of something new—a turn from Christ’s infancy and towards His life on earth. And so, we’ll take down the lights, put them in boxes, and then? Wait for what comes next.
If you’ve never been to a Theophany service, just picture Niagara Falls. Then wind it down a few notches—but only a few.
The point is: you will get a little wet.
Theophany, remember, is all about Christ’s baptism in the waters of the Jordan, so it is fitting that water should play a central role in the day’s festivities. For nearly an hour, you will witness just about every Bible passage that mentions water, read aloud in its entirety. You will hear about the creation of water in the beginning, the parting of the red sea; you will hear about streams forming in the desert, of God promising to nourish his people like the rains do the flowers. You will hear hymns tying Christ’s baptism to these and countless other water-ific events. His baptism is presented as the culmination of all the ways God has used water to show His goodness over the long course of salvific history.
In doing so, by the time Theophany is over, huge amounts of water will be blessed several times over—at the very least, a font, but it is also customary for entire lakes or streams to get a blessing. Enough holy water for a lifetime.
And yes, I really just said that. I’ll say it again in case you missed it: holy water.
If you don’t know what to think of those two words, don’t feel bad. Honestly, I’m still figuring out what holy water is, and what it isn’t.
As I drove to church the other night for the blessing of the waters on the eve of Theophany, I wondered how I (a college-educated person of the twenty-first century) can even accept something as seemingly archaic as “holy water.”
But, if I’m honest, it is not that much of a stretch. Blessing water speaks to something deep inside me. I grew up a block away from a gaping, nine-mile long lake. For so much of my life, the shores of this lake were my refuge. Anything else in our little town could change, but the lake—its waves, its immensity, its cerulean gleam—remained constant. How many times did I stand on its shore, marveling at its beauty? To this day, when I look out over a vast ocean, I want to proclaim with God in the book of Genesis, “This is good!”
But let’s cut to the chase: do I believe holy water cures the common cold? Or cancer? Or a fading houseplant? I wish, because I have quite the black thumb… But it strikes me that the “perfect cure” for all ailments is not necessarily the essence of sacredness. Miracles do happen sometimes, but I wonder if true holiness is not the ability to rid life of sorrow, but rather the gift of learning to endure it with grace, to see behind the veil of earthly struggle the reality of God’s goodness and eternity.
Theophany—and the blessing of the waters—teaches me, for at least two hours during a midwinter liturgy, to be more mindful of water. This is no small feat, considering that in our western, post-industrial-society of a world, we have the “luxury” of interacting with water in a completely mindless way if we want to. We don’t have to labor our way down to the nearest cistern when we want a drink—we don’t even have to pray for rain to have food. Certainly, this “luxury” is something we can be thankful for—but how can we be thankful for something we don’t even have to think about anymore? To be mindful of water once in a while, I think, is one step towards gratitude.
More than this, though, the holiday reminds me that water—and with it, the whole of material reality—is ultimately good. We are told that God distinguished water from land in the beginning, that He blessed all the corners of creation and called this world “good.” From that point on, the whole Judeo-Christian story of God is one in which He uses particular objects in reality—water, in this instance, but other stories celebrate oil, bread, flour, seeds, rocks, trees—to manifest His goodness, to slowly bring about salvation for the whole human race.
This is not just some abstractly good God, who stands at a distance so as not to muck Himself up with the messiness of tactile materials.
Regardless of our religious persuasion, the inherent goodness of this world, I think, is a timely lesson. We do not knowingly destroy, deforest, desertify things that are good. We do not pollute something we believe is precious. But as a society, we do all of the above to our world--and more. On some level, then, we have lost the belief that our world is good or worth taking care of.
Participating in Theophany brings me closer to a place where I can see through the haze of luxury and waste, through the darkened veil of what I take for granted. And maybe a fraction more clearly than other days, Theophany helps me see what is necessary and not necessary in this life.
Its waters are holy not because they cure my ills, but because they remind me on a tangible, visceral level to look for God in them.
I arrived at church. But as it turns out, the Theophany service would not go as planned.
There we were, standing around the font, having come about three quarters through the long readings and prayers and songs. At one point, someone across the room from me began whispering to their neighbor and pointed at something on the ground. They were gesturing towards a section of the floor that lay about four feet in front of me, right at the base of the font. All of us, except our priest and deacons and choir, began turning our heads, craning our necks, peering through the gaps between those who stood in front of us.
Sure enough, a tiny trickle of water was running down from the underside of the metal. The carpet was growing a large, dark puddle of water.
To put it mildly, this isn’t supposed to happen. The water is supposed to stay in the font and get, you know, blessed.
At this rate, almost-holy water was getting all over everything. Our church doubles as a mission for the homeless—it is a beloved building, but it is not pristine. I pictured our dusty carpets and dingy floors sopped wet with pure, blessed water. It seemed wrong, somehow. Certain things should be kept separate, shouldn't they?
Evidently, others felt as uncomfortable as I did. All around me, well-meaning parishioners sprang into action, trying not to disturb the service. A deacon was summoned. Was there a valve loose on the font? Was there a crack?
While Fr. Raphael was in the middle of a prayer, bending over the surface of the water, one of the deacons leaned in and whispered the situation into his ear. Fr. Raphael paused slightly, but continued the prayer as though nothing were wrong. We parishioners began taking things into our own hands. Someone went to fetch metal pans to put under the leak, another went to grab some towels to clean up the water. What was supposed to be a quiet, reverential liturgy was about to become a bustle of frenetic energy whose sole aim was to plug the leak of the water.
Suddenly, Fr. Raphael stopped in the middle of his prayer. The silence hit us like sword.
“Hey, guys, it’s fine. Just let the water leak,” he proclaimed. We all looked at each other, confused.
“No, really, don’t worry about it,” he continued, smiling. “It’s maybe not such a bad thing for the water to leak out. We are always trying to contain God in our little boxes. The whole point of Theophany is celebrating that God enters into our earthly existence in ways that are unexpected. He’s always pushing out of the boxes we try to put Him in, so that He can bless, save and show love to more and more of His creatures. Let the water go, and let it bless whomever it comes across. At least it will remind us that God doesn’t live in a box—or a font.”
Silence followed, as we considered his words. Then, we all sort of laughed and smiled at ourselves, at what we had been trying to do.
Such is life in the church. We have these liturgies, these traditions. And then, the unexpected happens, waking us up. We learn lessons together.
After we left the leak alone, the service continued as usual.
We moved in to prayers that—like the scripture readings—recounted God’s goodness, His presence in this world, His blessing of creation, His salvation offered to humans through Christ. We remembered that Christ was baptized not for His sins, but rather to participate to the fullest extent in the human experience, thereby sanctifying it.
Fr. Raphael plunged his hands deep into the water, in the shape of a cross, causing waves to ripple in the font. And then, as always, He submerged an entire, fully-lit candelabra down into the water—the flames fizzled out suddenly, a pucker of smoke rose from the water. When he lifted it back out again, the candle holder was dripping all over the place. It is a dynamic, slightly violent way of reminding us all of the baptism of Christ, the light of the world.
And slowly, in all of this, the water is becoming blessed. “Becoming” because we all, like the water, are on a perpetual journey toward holiness. Gradually, the somber mood of Old Testament readings flows into a tributary of joy, as Fr. Raphael dips olive branches and basil sprigs into the font, flicking water over all the walls of the church. The remaining water will be taken home in small jugs by parishioners. It will be given to strangers, hopefully, and poured over flowerbeds, and we will all be doused with generous sprinklings of it numerous times before we leave (I said you’d get wet!) As the water hits our faces, cold and wet on this wintry night, we can't help but smile--because when else do you get a face full of water droplets for a good cause?
There will be enough blessed water to last us the whole year—and then some.
As I finish this, the sun has long since risen over the horizon, and my tea has long since been imbibed. Just as the day has tucked the night away, so Theophany has brought Christmas to an end for the year. But in putting our decorations back in the box, we are called to not do the same with the goodness of God.