On 19 January, the Orthodox Church celebrates Epiphany… the day when St John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. Epiphany is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of Orthodox Christianity. On this day, a ceremony sanctifying water takes place in every Orthodox church in Russia. However, tradition has it that on Epiphany Eve, all the water in the world, whether sanctified in a church or not, acquires a special miraculous quality. Immersing in water on Epiphany Eve purifies the soul and strengthens the body. Although it is usually rather cold in Russia on Epiphany, this doesn’t stop many Russians from paying tribute to the old tradition to immerse in water in an open-air hole on Epiphany Eve. Tens of thousands of Russians in the night from Friday to Saturday carried out the rite of a three-fold immersion in icy water as Orthodox believers celebrated Epiphany.
For this ceremony, ice-holes in the form of a cross are made on rivers, lakes, and ponds. In Russia, such an ice-hole is called a Iordan, in reference to River Jordan where Jesus was baptised. This year, formal immersions took place in 40 places in Moscow alone on Epiphany Eve, with one of them on Red Square. Usually, there aren’t many people on Red Square at 22.00… however, this night, the square was crowded. Because of the biting cold, whilst the priest was performing the ceremony of sanctifying the water in two large tanks, the water already covered with ice… but this didn’t stop many believers from plunging into it.
Pavel, a young man from Transnistria, hadn’t initially planned to spend the night in Moscow. Nevertheless, as circumstances landed him in the Russian capital, he decided to take part in Epiphany immersion in Moscow, as he always does in his home town, as he didn’t want to miss it, saying to our VOR correspondent, “For the last seven years, I’ve always immersed myself on Epiphany Eve. I don’t belong to a walrus club, for me, immersion on Epiphany is a matter of faith in Christ, not sport. Seven years ago, when I was in Siberia, friends persuaded me to immerse in the Ob River on Epiphany. Since then, I immerse on Epiphany every year… each time when I do it, I have a feeling of being born again. I’m not afraid of catching cold whilst immersing on Epiphany Eve… I believe that real faith makes a person strong enough to resist any cold”.
Those waiting to immerse have formed a long queue. If Pavel, as he said, has immersed on Epiphany Eve for the seventh time already, obviously, many people in the queue are taking part in this ceremony for the first time… one can distinguished them by the special look in their eyes. Tatyana Gavrilova said, “I learnt that Epiphany ceremonies were taking place on Red Square only an hour ago, and I immediately realised that I had to come here. This is the first time that I took part in this ceremony ever, and I feel myself a bit unprepared for this, I find it a little scary. I really hope that it’ll do me good. I haven’t prepared for this; I didn’t read any religious books to understand the essence of Christian sacraments well enough. Yet, I’m firmly convinced that Epiphany immersion is healthy both for body and soul”.
Besides Muscovites, one could see foreigners in this queue as well, although none of them dared to immerse in the water. They only came to watch Russians immerse in icy water on a cold night, hoping to learn more about the mysterious Russian soul. Emma from Istanbul said, “I’ve lived in Russia for two years, but this is the first time that I’ve come to this unusual event. I’ve heard that there’s a holiday in Russia when people immerse themselves in the water on a very cold night, but this is the first time that I’ll see it with my own eyes. This is very interesting, but I must confess that I’m not bold enough to do it myself!”
An ambulance stood nearby, but, fortunately, very few people needed help or first aid from either doctors or paramedics. Yet, it’s true that simple faith and enthusiasm help even not very well-prepared people not to catch cold or drown. Aleksei said, “This is the first time that I immersed on Epiphany, and it’s really an awesome indescribable experience! I feel great! It’s like being born again! People with whom I stood in the queue and who already immersed in the holy water said that that they’d like to do it again. I felt like all my sins were washed away. Now, I’ll do this every Epiphany! I thought about doing this for a long time, and I’m glad that I finally went out and did it”
Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev, the First Hierarch of the Local Church of Moscow and all the Russias explained the essence of this holiday, “The Great Blessing of the Waters is evidence that we’ve opened the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven through the birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. By being baptised in the waters of River Jordan, God the Son sanctified not only the element of water, but the entire physical world as well. After God the Son’s incarnation on Earth, the entire physical world received the possibility to unite with God’s Nature. When we sanctify water in churches on Epiphany, water remains water. It doesn’t change its chemical structure; it doesn’t acquire new physical qualities, but it becomes full of divine grace. It acquires miraculous power which helps people overcome sickness, passions, and suffering, it helps them to change the world around us”.
Tradition tells us that the water sanctified in churches on Epiphany preserves its miraculous qualities till the next Epiphany. One may use it to bless a residential flat or an office. Some recommend that one should drink this water in small amounts every morning or every night before going to bed. However, the main thing one should do on Epiphany isn’t to go to church to get sanctified water or to immerse in an ice-hole, but to pray to God. After all, divine grace given to us through prayer is what allows holy water to heal people from any disease, physical or spiritual.
19 January 2013
Voice of Russia World Service
Click here for a VOR photo gallery on Epiphany
Click here for a RIA-Novosti photo gallery on Epiphany
The babas take it in stride… the strong men’s teeth chatter… is God telling us something?