The Feast of the Epiphany was established as a solemn feast in the Eastern Church in the middle of the IV century as proclaimed in the Apostolic Constitutions: "Let the Epiphany, in which the Lord manifested to us His own divinity, be to you the most honored festival and let it be celebrated on the sixth day of January." (cf. Apostolic Constitutions V, 13)
The Greek word "epiphany" means manifestation and applied by the Christians to the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, it specifically meant the manifestation of His divinity. St. John Chrysostom (died 407) elucidates: "Why do we call this day Epiphany? Because Jesus Christ manifested Himself to all people, not when He was born, but, rather, when He was baptized. Until that time He was unknown to the people, as testified by St. John the Baptist, saying,: ‘There stands among you One, Whom you don’t know!’ (Jn. 1:26)." (cf. Homily on the Epiphany, 2)
In the Old Slavonic, the feast is called "Bohojavlenije," equivalent to the Greek "Theophany," which means the manifestation of the Godhead. This word, however, more clearly reflects the manifestation of the Blessed Trinity at Christ’s baptism as poetically described in the troparion of the Feast: "At Your baptism in the Jordan…"
The solemn baptism of the catechumens was also administered in the Eastern Church on the eve of the Epiphany since the IV century. The early Fathers of the Church referred to this as the Mystery of Illumination or Enlightenment. Thus the Epiphany was also called The Feast of Lights or The Day of Illumination (cf. St. Gregory of Nazianz, Oration XL, 1-6). Following this, our liturgical books still call the Sunday before and after Epiphany the Sunday before the Illumination and the Sunday after the Illumination. St. Proclus, the Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 447), gives us the following explanation: "Christ manifested Himself to the world; He filled it with light and joy; He sanctified the waters and diffused His light in the souls of men." (cf. Migne, P.G. 65, 757-761)
Since the solemn blessing of the water takes place on Epiphany, the feast is also known as the Feast of the Blessing of Water, popularly called "Vodokschi," an abbreviated form of the Old Slavonic term "Vodokresch," meaning the blessing of water.
The Solemn Blessing of Water, in commemoration of Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan, is the main feature of the Feast of Epiphany. St. Gregory the Wonderworker, in the homily quoted above, commented: "The Lord, Who has come upon the Jordan River, through its streams transmitted sanctification to all streams (of water)." And precisely, in our liturgical books, the blessing of water is referred to as The Blessing of Jordan, since it is considered as the re-enactment of Christ’s baptism. By His baptism in the Jordan, Our Savior imparted upon water a mystical power of sanctification, a "sign of heavenly streams" of divine grace. (cf. St. Gregory the Wonderworker, Ibid.)
St. Basil the Great (died 379) affirms that the blessing of water came to us as a "mystical tradition" (of. On the Holy Spirit, XXVII, 66) and that the water, through the prayer and blessing of the priest, receives a "quickening power of the Holy Spirit." (Ibid, XV, 35) St. Ambrose (died 397) also taught that it was the Holy Spirit Who "consecrated the waters through the prayer of the minister." (cf. On the Holy Spirit, L. I. c. VII, 88) Consequently, in the prayer for the blessing of the water we always find the epiklesis—the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
The oldest prayer for the blessing of the water was preserved for us in The Euchologion of Serapion (died. after 362), the Bishop of Thmuis in Lower Egypt. It is almost certain that the prayer itself dates back well before his time and is also witness to the early practice of the Church. The Apostolic Constitutions, VIII, 39, attribute the authorship of the first prayer for the blessing of water to St. Matthias the Apostle.
According to Armenian sources, the original author of our ritual of the Solemn Blessing of Water was St. Basil the Great who composed it during his visit in Jerusalem in 377 A.D. This ritual was probably used in Antioch in 387 when St. John Chrysostom delivered his homily on the Baptism of Christ, saying: "This is the day on which Christ was baptized and through His baptism sanctified the element of water. Wherefore, at midnight on this feast, all (faithful) draw of the (holy) water and store it in their homes, because on this day the water is consecrated."
It seems that St. Basil’s ritual was later revised by St. Proclus of Constantinople (434-447) and, finally, by St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) who composed the introductory sticheras and rearranged the entire ritual according to the customs of the Alexandrian Church. For this reason, our present ritual of The Solemn Blessing of Water is ascribed to St. Sophronius of Jerusalem.
Our Trebnik contains another ritual for blessing water called The Simple Blessing of Water. This ceremony can be taken at any time of the year but it is used especially on the first day of August (in commemoration of the Holy Cross) and also on the occasion of a pilgrimage. An example of this is the custom of blessing the water at the Lourdes Grotto at Mount St. Macrina in Uniontown, Pa. during the annual Assumption Pilgrimage.
Among the various petitions mentioned in the ceremony during the blessing of the water is the sanctification of homes. With this the Church imposes a duty and obligation upon the priests to bless the homes of the faithful entrusted to their pastoral care at the beginning of the New Year. Theologically speaking, the blessing of homes constitutes an invocative blessing, meaning that by his prayer and by the sprinkling of the Holy Water the priest invokes God’s protection upon the home and those living in it. The prayer, reprinted on the back cover, best explains its meaning.
As our souls, so also our homes become tainted by the sins of those living in them and, consequently, lose God’s protective power. Every year, then, at the Feast of the Epiphany, they should be blessed again to secure for them God’s blessings and protection. Just as the faithful cleanse their soul of sin at least ONCE A YEAR, and the church is blessed with the newly blessed water every year, so should the homes of the faithful be yearly blessed to invoke God’s blessings and protection on it and its inhabitants.
As we renew the insurance on our home every year, so we should renew our insurance of God’s protection and his blessing which is of greater importance and more effective. As we welcome our priest during the holy season of Epiphany to bless our home, let us be mindful that he is bringing to us the "blessing of Jordan," and that unless God protect and bless our home, we "labor in vain." (Ps. 127:1)
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