THE GREAT FEASTS OF THE EASTERN CHURCHES are all observed with special hymns, special icons, and often, special rites. We may think immediately of the blessing of palms on Palm Sunday, the blessing of foods on Pascha, the exaltation of the Holy Cross on that feast or the blessing of grapes on the feast of the Transfiguration. The most solemn of these festal blessings, however, is the Great Sanctification of Water on the Feast of the Theophany.
Church orders actually prescribe two such blessings on the Theophany. At the end of the Vesper-Liturgy on the eve of the feast a vessel of water is sanctified in the church and the water given to the faithful to drink and to take to their homes. After the Liturgy on the feast itself the same rite is performed over a nearby body of water (ocean, river, lake or stream). Parishes that do not observe the full order may only have one such blessing.
Blessed Water in East and West
Holy Water is commonly used in all Eastern and Western Churches but with some difference in their meanings and purposes. In the West holy water is chiefly for purification. It is placed at the doors of churches for worshippers to bless themselves with it on entering the church as a kind of purification. At the principal Sunday Mass the entire congregation is so purified as the priest goes through the church sprinkling the worshippers. These practices recall the Old Testament tradition of having pools or basins of water at the entry to the temple for the same purpose. In the Eastern Churches purification is more commonly associated with incense.
In the Eastern Churches the sanctification of water has a different connotation. It is first of all connected with transformation. At baptism water is transformed that it may be a vehicle for the transformation of the person baptized in it into communion with the Holy Trinity. By being buried in the water and then raised out of it the new Christian experiences his or her own Pascha by being connected to the death and resurrection of Christ, thus becoming a partaker in the divine nature.
While at baptism a person is sanctified by being placed in the water, the reverse happens at the Theophany. It is the water which is sanctified by the One who entered into it. At the Great Sanctification of Water on the Theophany a cross, representing Christ, is immersed in the water three times, liturgically re-enacting the baptism of Christ and sanctifying the water. This sanctification of water at the Theophany represents the transformation of creation, begun with the Incarnation and intended to touch all creation. As St. Paul writes, “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Romans 8:21-22).
The rite continues, representing the extension of the blessing of the Jordan to all creation. The priest goes through the church sprinkling everyone and everything with the newly-sanctified water. In Eastern countries this procession may go through the entire neighborhood or village as the people sing the troparion of the Theophany. People would open their doors and the priest would go into their homes, passing from one to another with the blessing of the Jordan. This rite witnesses to the ongoing transfiguration of creation begun at the Jordan. In contemporary society this aspect of the rite has morphed into a scheduled appearance of the priest to bless the home, visit with the family, collect donations, discuss the parish, etc. Something has been lost.
Is Blessed Water Really Holy?
The twentieth century Russian Orthodox saint, John Maximovich, taught: “On Theophany, the Day of the Lord’s Baptism, every year a great miracle is performed. The Holy Spirit, coming down upon the water, changes its natural properties. It becomes incorrupt, not spoiling, remaining transparent and fresh for many years. This Holy Water receives the grace to heal illnesses, to drive away demons and every evil power, to preserve people and their dwellings from every danger, to sanctify various objects whether for church or home use. Therefore, Orthodox Christians with reverence drink Holy Water … People who drink a little Holy Water daily, before eating any kind of food, do well. It strengthens the powers of our soul—if it is done with prayer and reverence, and one does not merely expect a mechanical result from it.”
The prayer for the sanctification of water certainly supports the idea that a “great miracle” is expected when we sanctify the water. The priest chants:
“… Great are You, O Lord, and wonderful your works, and no word is adequate to sing the praise of your wonders (3 times). “…Therefore, O King, Lover of mankind, be present now too through the visitation of your Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water. (3 times) And give to it the grace of redemption and the blessing of Jordan. Make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a deliverance from sins, an averting of diseases, unapproachable by hostile powers, filled with angelic strength. That all who draw from it and partake of it may have it for cleansing of souls and bodies, for healing of passions, for sanctification of homes, for every suitable purpose. … And now, Master, do You yourself sanctify this water by your Holy Spirit” (3 times).
This prayer is an epiclesis – a plea for the sending of the Holy Spirit – asking that God effect a transformation. In this it is similar to the prayer said by the bishop when he sanctifies the Holy Chrism and at the Eucharistic epiclesis in the Divine Liturgy itself.
The current order for the Great Sanctification of Water is attributed to St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) but the above prayer is much older. In the fourth century St Basil the Great speaks of this rite as a “mystical tradition” (On the Holy Spirit, 27:66) which shows that it was practiced before his time. It is also mentioned in the fourth century Apostolic Constitutions, a Syrian work, and in the treatise On the Holy Spirit by St. Ambrose of Milan (died 397). All these sources attribute the sanctification of water to the Holy Spirit.
Many people drink a little blessed water and eat a piece of antidoron (blessed bread) as part of their regular Morning Prayers, before eating or drinking anything else. In this way they express their union with the worshipping Church and with the Lord who is transforming us and all creation as well.
This Prayer is often said before partaking:
O Lord my God, may this partaking of antidoron and holy water be for the health and strength of my soul and body, for the control of my passions and infirmities and for the enlightening of my physical and spiritual faculties in Your boundless loving-kindness, through the prayers of Your most pure Mother and of all the saints. Amen.