Each year at Theophany we perform the service of the Great blessing of the waters. With this holy water or Agiasmos, as we call it, the priest blesses the people and their homes in a “pilgrimage” through their homes lasting sometimes more than a month. For the modern person that, has lost any sense of the sacred under the influence of the protestant theology and the secular society, all this seems a rather odd habit to say at least.
But even for the secular man the water has tremendous importance. According to the evolution theory life has started in the water. It is also an essential component of the life cycle, without it nothing can grow or live. Man himself is made 50-65% from water and although one can survive weeks without food, without this essential liquid man surely dies in a matter of days.
So how do we respond to the raised eyebrow of the secular man when we bring the Holy Water into discussion?
The first and obvious answer lays the very meaning of Theophany that incorporates the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. The entrance of the Lord Himself into the water and all the events that followed, the flowing back of the river and the revelation of the Holy Trinity should be for us a good enough explanation.
But there is more to add because this is not the first time when water plays a central role in the Holy Scripture. Since the beginning of times water was used by God in various occasions. At the very creation of the world we read that “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:2). We remember the Great Flood that prevailed upon the earth drowning a mankind that was already sinking into un-repented sin. We see Moses parting the Red see with his staff so the people of Israel can be freed from the slavery of the Egyptian Pharaoh, while the pagan armies are destroyed by the same waters. We also acknowledge water as part of the purification rituals of the Mosaic Law.
The complete meaning of the importance of the water however is fully revealed in the water of Baptism. The key is the hymn we sing as we joyfully walk around the table with the Gospel at the end of the service: As many of you have been baptized in Christ you have put on Christ. As we are baptized in the water by a thrice immersion in the name of the Holy Trinity, we become Christ like. By dying as sinners in the water like in a tomb - three times, like three days - we are able thereafter to rise like Christ into incorruption, as members of the Church now and citizens in potentiality of the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ the New Adam, through the water of Baptism, is re-creating us in the Spirit, giving us again the choice that our forefathers failed so lamentably: a life in grace or a life in sin.
We recognize here the creation power of Genesis, the wrath of the Lord during the Flood and the liberating power of the Red Sea commanded by the wood of the Cross.
“Creation, Fall and Redemption, Life and Death, Resurrection and Life Eternal: all the essential dimensions, the entire content of the Christian faith, are thus united and hold together”
Through the descent of the Holy Spirit during Baptism and in the similar way during the Great Blessing of the Waters, the water regains its full potential and is transformed in a vehicle of renewal, a vehicle of change leading everything it touches toward the meeting with our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is possible because the Sacrament of Baptism is not to be understood as separated from Communion and Holy Liturgy, although the current liturgical practice does not really help in this respect, but the two should be considered as they really are: intimately linked. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann accurately states:
“Baptism is a personal Pascha and a personal Pentecost, as the integration into the laos, the people of God, as a passage from an old life into a new one and finally as an epiphany of the Kingdom of God.”
The Holy Communion is the earnest of the very goal of the Christian life: the Kingdom of Heaven. Each person that enters through baptism into the body of the Church starts living for the fulfillment of this promise, which is pre-tasted during the Holy Liturgy in the partaking of the Eucharist. The water of baptism makes all of this to happen by giving back to man his original potential.
Each year at Theophany we take part again and again in the reactivation of the spiritual properties of water by witnessing the river Jordan running backwards to its source, to its origins, symbolically reverting our lives to our true sacred roots. The Agiasmos consecrated at Theophany has the power to take us back were we belong, to renew into us the true Spirit of God and, paradoxically, instead of extinguishing, fueling the flame of our faith.
This Holy Water however does not work magically without our participation, but it demands involvement and requires a renewal of our dedication to Christ and His Church. It is for us a remembrance and a reaffirmation of our baptismal vows, it is a perennial new beginning that we embark in every time we use it. Without this understanding the sprinkling of Agiasmos is nothing else but an unwanted cold shower, devoid of any true significance.
Let us therefore receive the water of Baptism in our homes in the hope that the New Year will bring us closer to Christ and to one another. Let us all pray that the Holy Spirit that fills all things will also fill our lives with His peace and grace and that at the end of our lives we will be found worthy to join the rightful flock at the right hand of the Father.
I pray that you all will have a spiritually rewarding New Year and may the grace of the Lord be with you in everything you do.