Bless These Waters: Theophany at SVOTS
One week ago, my family and I took part in the St. Vladimir’s Theophany celebrations for the first time. We had not been able to attend services last year, as we had been back home in Texas during Theophany, and only made it back from visiting my wife’s family in Kentucky one day prior to the feast this year. On that day, while my wife, our three little girls, and I were just getting our bearings after our journey, the part of the seminary community that had stayed on campus for the break was participating in one of the longest liturgical days of the Orthodox year: Royal Hours, Typika, the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, and the First Blessing of Water—all told, an almost four-hour stretch of services. I asked one neighbor of mine how it went as he came in from church; he responded (a bit wearily but with a smile), “It was long, involved, and…beautiful.”
That night, my family and I attended the vigil for the feast, and the next morning we attended the Divine Liturgy. Following the celebrations, we all went in procession to the snow-bordered little fish pond right outside Three Hierarchs Chapel for the second blessing of water. It was here that my thoughts about what Theophany means took an unexpected turn. As I said, my wife and I are used to celebrating Theophany either in Texas, where water is usually blessed either in a baptismal font or (no kidding) a horse trough, or in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Orthodox parishes gather to bless the Arkansas River, which culminates with the priests’ pushing a giant cross carved out of ice into the river. The cold, snowy surroundings, along with the different venue for the blessing, made this a notable exception to what we’d been accustomed to.
The fish pond holds significance for our family; during the previous semester, one of the groundskeepers had asked us if we wouldn’t mind feeding the pond’s beautiful Koi fish on the weekends. My girls jumped at the chance, and the fish jumped every weekend as soon as they saw us, maws gaping eagerly for food. The pond was quiet now, on January 6th, and ice partially covered the surface, which was disturbed only by the hand cross which was thrown into the pond and retrieved three times at the blessing of waters. The lack of activity was obvious, yet our celebration of the manifestation of Christ as the One Whose "light…has shown on us,” and Who Himself is the “Light Unapproachable” that has, in turn, “enlightened the world,” as we sing in the Troparion and Kontakion hymns for Theophany, falls at a time when the darkness of winter is only now beginning to give way to the increasing light that comes with a new year. In spite of the cold, in spite of the lifelessness, in spite of the still-predominant dark of the season, we sing hymns of praise to the Light of the world, Who mercifully blesses the most primal element of our life: water.
Following the blessing of water, all of us were invited to the homes of several faculty members for the first house blessings of the Theophany season. We gathered in the front rooms of the houses, and all of us sang the festal Troparion as we, and the walls in every house, were sloshed with freshly-blessed holy water. Following the services, we all sat down together as a community to enjoy the hosts’ hospitality and yummy refreshments. While I ate and mingled at one of the houses, I met a young man who was visiting St. Vladimir’s to see if it would be a good fit for him as a seminary. We talked a bit about what he already appreciated about the seminary’s legacy in the Orthodox world, but at the end he mentioned how touched he was by the warmth he saw displayed in the house blessings. The sense of community at St. Vladimir’s has always been a wonderful aspect of our life here, and at no time is the sense of togetherness stronger than when we open our houses up to one another and share in the joy of our life in Christ.
We have now come to the leavetaking of the feast, and after a week of hearing my daughters sing the festal hymns at meals and ask (whine, really, and repeatedly so) for “some more holy water” which we brought from church and keep in a mason jar, we’re very grateful to have been present for this great feast—which outranks even Christmas in the Church’s calendar!—and for the sense of how Christ has revealed Himself to us both in liturgy and community.