Feast of Theophany – Schmemann: The Blessing of Water


Water does not mean much to us today. It’s one of life’s essential comforts, accessible automatic, cheap. You turn on the tap and there it is… However, for thousands of years water was a primary religious symbol and to understand why this was so we must recover the almost completely extinguished feeling for the cosmos.

To people of the ancient world, water was no less than a symbol of life itself and of the world as life … Water is truly a precondition for life. One can go without food for a long time, but without water a person will die very quickly, so we can say that human beings are by nature thirsty beings. Without water cleanliness is impossible, co water is also a symbol of cleansing and purity. Water as life and as purity, but also beauty, power and might, as we see it reflect and absorb, so to speak, the boundless blue sky. All of this describes the perception or experience of water that placed it at the centre of religious symbolism.

Go into a church the eve of Epiphany while the “Great Blessing of Water” is being celebrated. Listen to the words of the prayers and hymns, pay attention to the rite, and you feel that there is more here than merely ancient ritual: it has something to say to us today, just as it did a thousand years ago, about our life and our perpetual and unquenchable thirst for purification, rebirth, renewal… In this celebration water becomes what it was on the first day of Creation, when “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The words of the service echo this in praise and thanksgiving: “Great are You, O Lord, and marvellous are Your works, and there are no words which suffice to hymn Your wonders…” Once again, humanity stands before the mystery of existence. Once again, we experience the world joyfully and we see its beauty and harmony as God’s gift. Once again we give thanks. And in this thanksgiving, praise and joy we once again become genuine human beings.

The joy of Epiphany is in the recovery of a cosmic experience of the world, of recovering faith that everything and everyone can always be washed, purified, renewed, reborn and that regardless of how dirty and clouded with mud our life has become, no matter what swamp we might have rolled in, we always have access to a purifying stream of living water, because humanity’s thirst for heaven, goodness, perfection and beauty is not dead, nor can it ever die. Indeed, this thirst alone makes us human beings. “Great are You, our Lord, and marvellous are your works, and there are not words which suffice to hymn Your wonders…” Who said Christianity is depressing and grim, morbid and sad, and pulls human beings away from life? Look at the faces of worshippers that night and see the light and joy that shines as they listen to the psalm thundering its exultation, “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters” (Ps 29:3), as they watch the priest sprinkling volleys of blessed water throughout the church and those glittering drops fly as if throughout the whole world, making that world once again a possibility and a promise, the raw material for a mysterious miracle of transformation and transfiguration. God Himself entered this water in the form of a man; He united Himself not only with humanity, but also with all matter and made all of it a radiant, light-bearing stream flowing towards life and joy.

But non of this can be experienced or sensed without repentance, without a deep change of consciousness, without the conversion of mind and heart, without the ability to see everything in a new light. This was precisely the repentance John the Baptist preached and which made it possible to see Jesus approaching the river Jordan and lovingly accept Him as God Himself who from the beginning of time loved the human race and created the whole world for us as an image of His love, eternity and joy.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann


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