I am at the vigil for Theophany, alone. My husband, Troy, graciously offered to watch the kids so that I could take in this marathon service without distraction. Breaking out my rusty alto, I join in the choir I’ve hummed along with every week while whispering the words of the creed and the litanies into the ears of my toddler. Anyone doubtful of the Orthodox Church’s devotion to Scripture should immerse themselves in the feast of Christ’s Epiphany, which is literally drenched in readings from Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, and I Corinthians. I am trying my best to take advantage of this rare opportunity by following the service book line by line - by singing with my mind and my heart, rather than forming the words that pop into my head subconsciously due to habit and rote memorization.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, I am schooled in the heavy symbolism of Christ, the man, convening with John the Baptist at the River Jordan. This moment, rich with significance, is the first public appearance of Jesus as the Messiah. It is a foretaste of His death and resurrection, and a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. The Son of God allowing Himself to be dunked in the waters of this earth, once pure at creation but now dirtied and polluted by sin, is to be celebrated because He has met us in our weaknesses and offers hope, sanctification, and a chance to drink once again from purified water, guaranteed to quench our thirst for eternity.
I will admit that my back is starting to stiffen, and I wish that I had not chosen to hang my coat in the coat rack on the other side of the sanctuary. A draft of cold air keeps me rubbing my hands back and forth, attempting to find warmth in the friction. I like it here, in the choir, where members are jovial and team oriented. Pages fly back and forth. Liturgical books are opened, closed, set on the floor in front of music stands, and then brought back up again for another usage. My fellow alto, a real pro in my opinion, writes notes in the margins of the page. “Watch the wording” they will say, or “sing slowly”. Her love for this hymn, this choir, this parish is evident by her dedication to detail and the worn thin strands in the rug beneath her feet, where she stands at every service without exception.
Finally, Father Bill brings out the basin of water to be blessed. We hear Old Testament Prophecies, readings from The Gospel and Epistle. The Holy Spirit is invoked and the cross is dipped three times while we sing the Troparian,
When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, and called Thee His beloved Son! And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee!
This water will be poured into bottles for members, it will be sprinkled in our homes as a blessing. For ten years, ten years, I have participated in this essential aspect of Epiphany without really knowing what to make of it. A bottle of Holy Water has been a permanent fixture in our refrigerator, each year refilled with a fresh supply. My husband has been faithful about putting it to good use, but whenever I open the door to take out an apple or a gallon of milk and see it there, staring at me, I find myself thinking, “What do I do with you?”
I am inching along the spiritual path toward thinking like an Orthodox Christian. For the most part, I have embraced with joy the organic mystery of Eastern Christianity where elements of the faith, deeply rooted in Scripture and Tradition, are to be tasted, touched, and lived, rather than dissected. But there are still moments when my old black and white tendencies escape, strapping mystery to a table where glaring white lights are aimed and tools stand by in an impossible effort to extricate the innards of that, which is fluid and indefinable. There is no hocus-pocus here. No magic tricks for starting a miracle in motion.
Tired and frigid, feeling the droplets flung from a brush in the hands of my priest now trickling down my forehead, I begin to internalize the purpose of welcoming this blessing into my home and my body. Like an icon is more than paint and wood, and the Eucharist more than bread and wine, so is this water more than an Orthodox condiment staying cool in my kitchen year after year. I felt nothing when I expected the water to activate my faith, but I see now it is my faith that activates the curative elements in the water. I am spiritually healed by the physical act of drinking from my portion of the Jordan, because all creation was sanctified through the Baptism of Jesus Christ.
Each time blessed water touches the lips of this frazzled wife and mother, of her husband stressed with the responsibility of providing for his family, of her child feverish and achy; the recipient is united with his or her original calling to be cleansed and enter God’s Kingdom. The water stains from a house blessing, barely visible on the glass framing my pictures, mark my soul with the remembrance that my old sinful past has been washed away and that all things were made new again by the rising of Jesus from the river. “How beautifully practical,” I marvel, “to incorporate this promise, so easily smothered by mundane distractions, into the everyday lives of those striving for salvation.”
After vigil, there is small talk and a few items to go over regarding the Liturgy taking place in the morning. I am flattered by the appreciation of my presence by fellow parishioners and singers; it feels good to be part of a community. I am hungry from the strict fast in preparation for tomorrow’s feast. I am longing for a hot bath and warm pajamas. But mostly, I am thankful. Thankful that the Christian faith, the faith that has defined me as long as I can remember, still continues to amaze, transform, and ignite my spirit with sparks of love fanned into flames through prayer, the sacraments, faith, and this water, flowing clean and clear by the grace of God.
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