On January 6, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of Theophany, a commemoration of Jesus’s Baptism in the Jordan. The Theophany feast is occasionally titled Epiphany, and in some older Byzantine manuscripts, the Feast of Lights (τῶν φωτῶν). The Theophany feast is also a major celebration for Eastern Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Christians. For the people, Theophany is a time to come to Church for the blessing of waters. This rite is affixed to the festal Vigil or following the Divine Liturgy, and the blessing of waters is an entire liturgical office on its own, featuring the “Great are You” prayer (likely of Antiochene provenance) and the submersion of the cross (or other objects, depending on the tradition) into the water as a gesture of consecration. The prayer calls upon Jesus himself to enter the waters, “now as then” for their consecration. At the end of the rite, the presider sprinkles the water all over the Church, baptizing the icons, people, and space. People come forward and drink the water, anointing themselves with it, filling jars and containers to bring it home where they drink it during illness and use it for healing, blessing, and protection from temptation and evil spirits. It is customary for the parish priest to visit the homes of the people following Theophany and to bless them with the newly consecrated water. The ceremony is a celebration of receiving the gifts of Baptism anew and having them at home throughout the year.
I researched and wrote about this blessing from 2005 to 2008; it was the topic of my dissertation and became my first academic book. Read the book or the article I published on baptismal themes in the blessing of waters for a dense theological analysis of the rite. Today offers an occasion to reflect on an unexplored dimension of the blessed Theophany waters: veneration and respect for creation, and the process of constructing a new ethic toward water.
While I do not know anyone personally who is indifferent on the matter of pollution, there seems to be no doubt that we do not realize how precious water is as an essential source of life. We become alert when our devices notify us of natural disasters that result in acute shortages of safe drinking water. It seems that epic hurricanes and earthquakes are the only occasions that remind us that we cannot live without water. Entire communities throughout the developing world do not have access to clean water, and have neither the financial nor the technological means to acquire water purification systems. Natural sources of water are also scarce for certain countries, a problem that has increased momentum in the movement to legalize desalination of ocean water for community and domestic usage. For decades, we have learned that the world’s supply of petroleum is limited, a reality that causes problems in the energy sector and places great responsibility on countries with large amounts of oil and natural gas. Increases in global population and the threat of a surge in epic storms pose similar threats to the water supply, with grave implications since one cannot live without water.
People of faith have responded to this global crisis by appealing for a new veneration of creation and the material world. Theological exploration of ecology has resulted in interdisciplinary attention to the water crisis. The results have been ecumenical and interreligious, and not only as institutions of higher learning hire scholars and teachers who specialize in ecology in some way. There is a renewed effort to translate the new veneration for ecology into social action, to protect the environment from exploitation, to stop humanity’s destruction of the earth’s natural resources, and to work towards equal and affordable distribution of resources, so that people who do not have access to essentials will not fall into economic ruin through the prices they pay. The Orthodox Church has had one consistent voice vouching for creation: the green patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople.
Does this mean that the rest of the Orthodox Church does not care about creation and the environment? Orthodox theologians have been hesitant to align theology with appeals for social justice, for a variety of reasons. I propose that the Theophany feast has something theological to offer the world, and that protecting the environment, adopting a new “mind” towards creation, and committing to global and international equal distribution of and access to clean water and the technology that purifies water, are the sacred duties of all Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians.
When Orthodox faithful flock to the water, drink it, and anoint themselves with it, they are expressing the acute human dependence on water in the context of liturgical rite. The human dependence on water translated to an appeal to God as the source of the water to provide it for us. Trust is built into this appeal to God to provide clean water: we trust that God transforms the water and makes it into “a spring of blessing” when we celebrate the consecration of the waters. Human vitality depends on God’s gift of water; without it, we will die, and the trust is rooted in a series of pithy references in the Great are You prayer, seemingly interpolated to remind us that God has always used water as the preferred divine material instrument of human salvation and sustenance. No narrative captures human dependence on water for life as much as the Hebrews complaining of bitter water, and God commanding Moses to toss wood into the water to make it drinkable. When the Byzantine manuscripts state that the presider submerges a cross into the water, most of them explicate that he submerges a wooden cross, evoking images of Jesus’ lifegiving death, and Moses tossing the wood into the water in Exodus. The pithy doxologies also refer to Noah’s ark on the water, and Elijah drenching the wooden altar with water, for God to appear. In other words, in the stories, the people have to animate the water in some way: the ritual manipulation of the water results in God’s activity, and in each case, God is the one who initiates the process of using water as an instrument to save, sustain, and protect humanity.
The annual celebration of this rite is God’s invitation to the Christian community to act, just as God instructed Moses to act to provide water for the Israelites. The Theophany blessing of waters is an inexhaustible source of power for turning the tide in the world’s water crisis. The rite already shows us that God provides water for us to live. As a natural gift from God, water is holy, and a natural material source that is necessary for sustaining human life can never be a commodity. The Theophany blessing of waters, therefore, can become a primary source for conversion, and in this sense, it is a transformation of our minds and hearts in the way we understand and approach water.
As a lifegiving and precious natural resource, water must be handled with care, shared, and protected. The famous instruction of St. Cyril of Jerusalem to the neophytes on the precious nature of the Eucharist comes to mind, when he admonishes them to be careful of wasting any of the Lord’s body and blood. We must love, preserve, protect, and share water, as a finite natural resource provided by God for all of humanity, with more affection and veneration than we have for our most beloved personal possessions. Second, the adoption of a new mind and heart towards water must translate into concrete social action, to influence local, regional, national, and international policies so that they come to reflect and echo an understanding of water as a finite natural resource that is to be shared and distributed equally throughout the world. The Theophany blessing of waters is heavily influenced by Baptism, so we can view this new sacred duty as a baptismal vow we promise to fulfill each and every year.
A friend of mine says we live in an age of cynicism. If that is true, then readers might be tempted to shrug and dismiss this proposal as utopian. In conclusion, I would like to share one of the prayers that used to belong to the broader Eastern tradition of blessing the waters on Theophany, but fell out of usage when the rite for the blessing of waters became monasticized and the cathedral traditions were muted. I am hoping that the prayer’s request of God might inspire us to restore it to liturgical practice and hope that the people of developing countries throughout the world might receive the same blessings on account of our conversion:
God our God, who in the days of Moses changed the bitter water into sweet for the people, and healed the dangerous waters by salt in the days of Elisha, and sanctified the streams of the Jordan by your unblemished manifestation, now yourself, master, sanctify this water, and make it a spring of blessing, the healing of passions, the sanctification of dwellings, a protection from all visible and invisible attack for all who draw from it and partake of it. For yours is the dominion, and yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father.