Of water and the spirit
Subdeacon, St. Andrew Orthodox Church
On the afternoon of Sunday, January 21, parishioners of St Andrew the First-Called Orthodox Church will be gathering in City Park to ask God’s blessing on the waters of Plum Creek for the new year. The blessing of water is an ancient practice going back to the first decades of Christianity, and beyond.
The Orthodox Church sees that the blessing of water was prefigured in the Old Testament by the story of Moses and the bitter waters of Marah. The Lord showed Moses a nearby tree, which he cut down and threw into the water; the water became sweet. (Exodus 15:23-25). It’s no coincidence that the Apostles routinely referred to the Cross as a “tree,” (Acts 5, 10, and 13; Galatians 3; 1 Peter 2), and that in the blessing service the priest throws a large cross into the water three times.
But for Christians, it is of course the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, as described in chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew 3. This too, despite what one might think, was also a blessing of the waters. For a Christian, the idea that Jesus “needed” baptism seems absurd — he was born, lived, and died without sin. Nor did Jesus think He needed it — he told John that it was to “fulfill all righteousness.” It was an essential part of the divine plan of salvation. The Orthodox Church understands that by being baptized in the Jordan, it wasn’t Jesus who was sanctified; it was the water, and ultimately the entire world, that was sanctified. The significance of the moment can’t be overstated, when we recognize that all three Persons of the Holy Trinity are actively present: “Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
As to the blessing of water as practiced by the early Church, the martyr Irenaeus of Lyons († 202) wrote that the purification of one’s sins occurs “thanks to holy water and invocation of the Lord’s Name,” Tertullian of Carthage wrote that water was invariably consecrated “as soon as God is called upon it.” Writing in the 4th century, Basil the Great explained that consecration of water is an earliest oral tradition of the Church, echoing the Apostle Paul: “brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word [oral], or our epistle [written].”
In the blessing service, the people pray for the entire world. You might think of them as prayers for the new year we’ve just begun:
* For the peace from above, and the salvation of our souls.
* For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all.
* For this land, its authorities and armed forces.
* That He may deliver His people from enemies both visible and invisible, and confirm in us oneness of mind, brotherly love and piety.
* For this city, for every city and country, and the faithful that dwell therein.
* For seasonable weather, abundance of the fruits of the earth, and peaceful times.
* For travelers by sea, land and air; for the sick, the suffering, the imprisoned, and for their salvation.
* For all those who entreat of God aid and protection.
* That we may be delivered from all tribulation, wrath, and necessity.
In blessing its small corner of the world, Lockhart’s local Orthodox church is simply doing its part. For many years, parishes in Colorado have gathered at Monarch Pass on the Continental Divide over 11,000-feet high, to bless the snowpack. I’ve participated in this service, in which the priest or bishop throws a cross into the snow in each of the four directions of the compass, and the children all compete to retrieve it. Of course, all of that snow (eventually) melts in the summer, and finds its way into rivers, streams, and lakes on both sides of the country.
On a January family trip years ago to the Big Island of Hawaii, I told a local priest about this, and happily responded that in the next week his parishioners were all going down to the beach to bless the Pacific Ocean. He observed what a wonderful thing it was that the Lord’s blessing would be called down on the entire planet, both land and sea. “Yeah, it may sound presumptuous, but ours is a great and powerful God!”
Saint Andrew’s here in Lockhart will be making its contribution on the banks of Plum Creek on Sunday, Jan. 21 at the South Pavilion in City Park a bit after noon — weather permitting.