The Feast of the Theophany

Part VII: Great Blessing of Water

Introduction - Arrangement of Services - Vespers - Great Compline - Matins - Divine Liturgy - Great Blessing of Water

The Great Blessing of Water is perhaps the most memorable part of the Theophany services. Water, as a symbol of purification and cleansing, was at one time blessed as often as once a month; this Small Blessing of Water is still held on August 1, and as needed - for example, at events like the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. But the Great Blessing of Water, connected explicitly with the blessing of the Jordan River which occured at the baptism of the Lord, is done each year on Theophany, January 6.

According to the Typikon, this blessing is actually done twice:

In practice, most parishes only hold the Great Blessing of Water once each year, in church after the Divine Liturgy either on the eve or on the day of the feast. The blessing takes place after the Ambon Prayer of Vespers with Divine Liturgy (on the eve) or of the Divine Liturgy on the morning of Theophany. (If Theophany falls on Sunday or Monday, and Vespers without Divine Liturgy is celebrated on the eve of Theophany, then the blessing on the eve is done after the conclusion of Vespers.)

This page describes the service of the Great Blessing of Water. The complete service can be found in the MCI booklet (PDF) for the service.

The Procession

The service begins with stichera, which would be sung as processional hymns when the blessing is conducted outdoors. When water is blessed within the church, these stichera are sung by the cantor and people as an introduction to the service.

The Readings

When the procession (or stichera) are concluded, we hear readings from the Old Testament, the Apostolic Writings, and the Gospel.

The three Old Testament readings are all taken from the prophecies of Isaiah:

The prokeimenon which precedes the Epistle once again reminds us that God Himself is our light and our Savior:

The Lord is my light and my help; whom shall I fear?

The Epistle reading (1 Corinthians 10: 1-4) reminds Saint Paul's listeners of the Israelites in the desert, who were baptized by the cloud and the sea, and who ate the same spiritual food (the manna in the desert). "They all drank the same spiritual drink; they drank from the spiritual rock that was following them, and the rock was Christ."

The verses of the Alleluia remind us of the stupendous things which are taking place:

V. The Lord's voice resounding on the waters, the Lord is on the immensity of the waters.
V. The God of glory thunders; the Lord is on the immensity of the waters.

And yet almost by contrast, the Gospel reading (Mark 1: 9-11) gives the simplest possible summary of these events:

At that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. Immediately on coming up out of the water, he saw the sky rent in two and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: "You are my beloved son. On you my favor rests."

The Gospel is followed by a litany, in which the deacon (or priest) directs us to pray "that these waters may be given the grace of redemption, the blessing of the river Jordan by the power, action, and descent of the Holy Spirit". We are now reading for the blessing itself.

The Blessing of the Water

Three times, the priest makes the sign of the cross in the water with a three-branched candle (signifying the Holy Trinity), saying each time:

Great are you, O Lord, and wonderful are your works; no word suffices to give praise to your wonders.

Then he prays aloud, recounting the many reasons we have to praise God, in company with the angels and all creation. Breathing upon the water three times in the form of a cross, he says each time:

O Loving King, come now and through the descent of the Holy Spirit sanctify this water.

The breath is an ancient symbol of life bestowed; the Greek word for "spirit" is the same as "breath"; our Lord breathed on his disciples when he said, "Receive the Holy Spirit."

Then the priest prays aloud, asking God to bless the waters, and giving the reason for our hope and expectation of such a blessing:

Grant it the grace of redemption and the blessing of the Jordan.
Make it a fount of incorruptibility, a gift of sanctification, a redemption of sins,
a healing potion for illness, and a destroyer of demons.
Make it immune to hostile powers,
and fill it with angelic power so that all who drink and receive of it may be purified in soul and body,
cured of ills, sanctified in their homes, and given every befitting grace.

For you are our God, who through water and the Spirit rejuvenated our nature grown old by sin.
You are our God, who drowned sin in the waters at the time of Noah.
You are our God, who, on the sea and at the hands of Moses, delivered the Hebrews from the bondage of Pharaoh.
You are our God, who split the rock in the wilderness, so that the waters gushed out,
and the valleys overflowed, and the people were satisfied.
You are our God, who, with fire and water, and at the hands of Elijah, delivered Israel from the errors of Baal.

Finally, the priest makes the sign of the cross in the water with his hand, three times, saying each time:

Wherefore, O Master, sanctify this water by your Holy Spirit.

and prays aloud:

Grant sanctification, blessing, cleansing, and health
to all who touch it, are blessed with it, or who partake of it.
O Lord, save your servants, our civil authorities.
Keep them in peace within your protective shadow, granting them all salutary requests and eternal life.
May your all-holy name be glorified by the elements, by men, by angels, by all that is visible or invisible,
together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever.

and the people respond, "Amen." The blessing of the waters is complete.

The Blessing of the People

Now the priest turns to the people, bids them to bow their heads, and prays for them:

Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear us. You sanctified the water when you
consented to be baptized in the Jordan; now bless us who through the bowing of
our heads signify our servitude. Grant that we be filled with your sanctification
by the partaking of this water, and let it be for the healing of our souls and
bodies, O Lord.

He sings the troparion of Theophany ("At your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord..."), which the people repeat twice, while the priest lowers the hand-cross (representing the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ) into the water three times. He then sprinkles the people with the newly-blessed water. The clergy and faithful come forward to kiss the cross and be blessed with the Jordan water, while the following hymn (sticheron) is sung:

Let us praise in song, O faithful, the greatness of the favor of God to us.
For, having become man because of our transgressions,
he is purified in the Jordan for our purification.
He, the only pure and spotless One,
sanctifies me and the waters,
and crushes the heads of the dragons in the waters.
Wherefore, O brothers and sisters, let us take of that water with joy!
For the grace of the Holy Spirit is invisibly imparted to all who, in faith, take thereof,
by Christ our God, who is also the Savior of our souls.

Then the priest gives the dismissal for Theophany:

May Christ our true God, who for our salvation deigned to be baptized by John in the Jordan, have mercy on us and save us...

Afterwards, it is customary for the faithful to drink of the newly blessed water, and to bear it away to their homes for use throughout the year.

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