Holy Theophany and the Blessing of the Waters

FREE PRINTABLES

The Holy Feast of Epiphany, or Theophany, or the Feast of Light is greatly celebrated in the Orthodox world. In Greece, where we come from, it is a national holiday. After the church service, processions of clergy, local authorities and the faithful head to the nearest body of water – sea, lake, river – where the Blessing of the Waters takes place. At the end of the ceremony, the priest throws a cross into the water and young divers rush to retrieve it. Whoever catches the cross first, is considered to be bestowed a special blessing.

Photo by Vasilis Ververidis, Shutterstock

The Feast commemorates the Baptism of Christ and the divine revelation of the Holy Trinity. The name of the Feast is Epiphany, meaning manifestation upon the world, or Theophany, meaning manifestation of God, because, at this event, all three Persons of the Holy Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — were made manifest. It is also called the Feast of Light, to remind us that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Light Himself, brings us, from that day on, to the knowledge of the true God, and thus to eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). The Feast additionally celebrates the establishment of the Sacrament of Baptism by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, a lesson on Theophany touches upon four main themes:
1. The event of the Baptism of our Lord
2. The manifestation of the Holy Trinity
2. The establishment of the Sacrament of Baptism
3. The Blessing of the Waters (Agiasmos)

We find the above themes too extensive to cover in depth all at once. So, in this page we are exploring the event of our Lord’s Baptism, the manifestation of the Holy Trinity, and the Blessing of the Waters – in the future, we are planning on devoting a separate page to the Sacrament of Baptism.

Objectives

At the end of the lesson the children should be able to:

Younger children

  • Point to Jesus Christ and St. John the Baptist in the icon of Theophany.
  • Name St. John as the person who baptized Jesus.
  • Explain that, like our Lord, we were also baptized.
  • Name the three Persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the fact that the priest blesses us with Holy Water at church and at our house.

Older children

In addition to the above, they should also be able to:

  • Briefly retell the story of our Lord’s Baptism.
  • Explain that, when we are baptized, we become members of the Church.
  • Point to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in the icon of Theophany, and briefly explain who everyone else is and what they’re doing.
  • Briefly describe how, at the Blessing of the Waters, the priest blesses us with Holy Water, not only on Theophany but also on other occasions.

Main points

  • Saint John the Baptist or Forerunner was the son of Elizabeth and Zacharias, and our Lord’s second cousin – as the Theotokos was, according to the Gospel, Elizabeth’s first cousin. 
  • When his parents died, John went to live ascetically in the desert.
  • He became a Prophet, calling people to repent because Christ would come soon. Many people repented, confessed their sins and John baptized them in the River Jordan.
  • When Jesus became 30 years old, He went to the desert and asked John to baptize Him.
  • While Christ was coming up from the water, the heavens opened suddenly, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove. The voice of God the Father came from heaven and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
  • John realized that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God Who came to save us from sin and death.
  • At Theophany, Christ established the Sacrament of Baptism, during which we are re-born into Christ.
  • As Jesus blessed the waters on the day of His Baptism, the Church offers us the service of the Blessing of the Waters, to help cleanse and protect our bodies and souls from sin – as long as we are willingly making an effort to be obedient to the will of God.

PLANNING THE LESSON

Our printable packet contains a variety of activities to help teach the above main points. One way to use our material to do a lesson could be the following:

  • Present the story using our paper puppets.
  • Have a brief discussion on:
    – the manifestation of the Holy Trinity (the paper puppets can help here)
    our own baptism
    – the Blessing of the Waters
    With the youngest children, a fun way to discuss the Blessing of the Waters could be to bring a bunch of basil and a bowl of water, and reenact the way we are sprinkled with Holy Water during the service. In the printables, we are also offering visual aids to help discuss the Blessing of the Waters. An engaging way to discuss our own baptism could be to bring a small baby doll and show how we are being dipped into water when we are baptized. We plan to offer visual material for the Sacrament of Baptism at a later post.
  • Explore the icon of the Feast.
  • Reinforce what was taught by working on some of our worksheets or by making one of our crafts.

BACKGROUND

Scripture Readings

Matthew 3
Mark 1:1-11
Luke 3
John 1:1-34

Troparion — Tone 1

When You, O Lord were baptized in the Jordan / The worship of the Trinity was made manifest / For the voice of the Father bore witness to You / And called You His beloved Son. / And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, / Confirmed the truthfulness of His word. / O Christ, our God, You have revealed Yourself / And have enlightened the world, glory to You!

Icon of the Feast

On the left side of the icon, we can see John the Baptist who has the appearance of one who lives in the wilderness. His arms are outstretched, in prayer and reverence, but also directing the viewer to Christ. Even though John is the one performing the Baptism, he is not a central figure in the icon; Christ is the central figure. Additionally, John is shown bent over in reverence to our Lord. Close to John we can see a tree, unto which an ax rests – this is to symbolize John’s preaching: “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

On the opposite shore, angels are waiting to receive the newly baptized Christ, bowing down, and with their arms covered in reverence, giving praises to Him.

Jesus Christ is shown as though standing on top of the water, and not submerged in it. His body looks strong and beautiful, but not in a realistic way; rather in a symbolic way that signifies the Kingdom of Heaven. In older icons He is completely naked, whereas in newer ones there is a cloth binding His loins. Christ is the central and largest figure in the icon to note His importance. With His hands, He is blessing the waters.

The icon of Theophany is one of the very few Orthodox icons showing all three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Father is depicted as a segment of a circle on the top of the icon, symbolizing the opening heavens – sometimes a blessing hand is also added. The Son is Jesus Christ, being baptized in the water. Rays of light are shed upon our Lord, and the Holy Spirit is descending on Him in the form of a dove.

In many versions of the icon, we also see two small figures swimming in the water of Jordan at the bottom of the icon, together with the fish. The male figure is an allegory of the river Jordan, and the female one is an allegory of the sea; they both represent Old Testament texts prophesying the Baptism.

The Blessing of the Waters (Agiasmos)

With His Baptism, our Lord blessed the nature of the waters and the natural world. According to the Orthodox Faith, in the same way, the Holy Spirit sanctifies water – the most essential natural element – during the service of the Blessing of the Waters. Even though the Blessing of the Waters is not one of the seven Sacraments of the Church, it belongs in the category of ‘sacramental rites’, during which Divine Grace is imparted invisibly through perceptible gestures and signs.

The Church teaches that the Blessing of the Waters truly changes the nature of water, and thus the sanctified water becomes incorruptible, bestowing on the faithful the Holy Spirit’s blessings: healing of body and soul, protection from any evil action, as well as enlightenment and guidance toward true knowledge. In order for the faithful to be receptive to the blessings bestowed upon them by the Blessed Water, they need to be open to God’s Grace by continuously and consciously making an effort to obey God’s will. 

There are two services of the Blessing of the Waters, the Great Blessing and the Lesser Blessing.

The Great Blessing of the Waters

The Great Blessing of the Waters is performed annually, once on the Eve of Theophany (January 5) and once on the Feast Day of Theophany (January 6). It is a longer prayer service which commemorates the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. As with all the events in the life of our Lord, His Baptism is commemorated as if occurring today – we hear twenty phrases starting with this word, “Today”. The priest also recites many petitions, asking God to sanctify the water and bestow upon it – and consequently upon the faithful – the blessings of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the service, the priest, using a bunch of basil and a special cross for this purpose, sprinkles the church and the congregation with the Blessed Water. The faithful then collect Holy Water in containers to drink and take home.

Please note: Just like with the Holy Eucharist, in order to drink the Blessed Water, we must not have eaten or drunk anything; if we keep some Holy Water for consumption at home, we normally drink it in the morning, before we eat or drink anything else. If, on the morning of the Great Blessing, we have received Holy Communion and have been offered Antidoron, we hold on to the Antidoron, to eat it after we drink the Holy Water.

Following the Theophany celebration, the priest can visit the faithful’s homes or businesses to bless them with Holy Water that he has kept from the Great Blessing.

The Lesser Blessing of the Waters

The service of the Lesser Blessing of the Waters is shorter than the Great Blessing, and is performed at churches on the first day of each month, and at other locations in the beginning of any new endeavor, such as in schools at the start of the school year, after the purchase of a new car or home, or at the opening of a business. 

If we are expecting a priest to our house or business for the service of the Lesser Blessing of the Waters, preparation through Holy Confession is considered very beneficial. We also need to have available the following items: 

  • A deep bowl for the water
  • A candlestick and a candle
  • An icon, usually of Christ or the Theotokos
  • A censer with coal and incense
  • A bunch of basil
  • A hand towel to dry the priest’s hands
  • A small glass to drink some Blessed Water
  • A list with the names of the persons to be commemorated by the priest 

After the Blessing of the Waters

The Church teaches the following for after the Blessing:

  • We should keep the bottle of Blessed Water in the icon corner. 
  • We should never pour out Holy Water in the sink or the drain.
  • We can drink or dab some Blessed Water on our face every time we are physically or mentally unwell or in any danger. 
  • The Blessed Water never spoils – we can keep it practically forever by refilling the bottle with regular water before the Holy Water runs out.

EXPLORE FURTHER

Articles

Videos