On the first Sunday of the New Year, we celebrate the service of Theophany (also called Epiphany). This service marks the Baptism of our Lord and the physical revelation of His place in the Holy Trinity.
‘And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”’ (Matthew 3:16-17, ESV).
The service of Theophany includes the blessing of the waters, a tradition which represents Christ’s blessing of the Jordan through His full immersion in it. But why do we continually bless water when God has already redeemed all matter through His life? Isn’t Theophany one of the best examples of a service which tells us as Orthodox Christians that God’s promise has already been fulfilled?
Why do we bless water?
The blessing of the waters is as important as the blessing of food or the blessing a priest gives to those who approach him. Holy Water in Greek is Agiasmos which also can be translated to mean sanctification. It is through the service of Theophany that the waters are sanctified. “Agiasmos is not merely water of spiritual significance, but a new being, a spiritual-corporeal being, an intertwining of heaven and earth, of grace and matter. This is why the great Agiasma (according to the church canons) is viewed as a kind of lower degree of Holy Communion”.1 This spiritual-corporeal link between the Holy Spirit and holy water can be observed throughout both the Old and the New Testaments.
Fr. Geoff blessing parishioners with Basil leaves dipped in Holy Water
As early as the first chapter of Genesis, scripture tells us that “The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2, RSV), which signifies the importance of water. These same waters are said to be the source of life on earth: ‘And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens”’ (Genesis 1:20, RSV).
Later in Genesis, Noah witnessed the biggest and perhaps most challenging event of sanctification by water in Biblical history—the Flood. This cleansing was followed swiftly by a dove that signified a new promise. Even in the New Testament we see this sanctifying effect of the Spirit on water. The Nicene Creed bears witness to this: “Who for our sake and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The Holy Spirit sanctified the waters of the Virgin’s womb through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. But although these biblical examples do present to us the importance of water, it is only fully realised and revealed in the appearance of our Lord and Saviour at Theophany. The blessing of the waters is an important part of the Orthodox calendar and provides a physical example of how the Holy Spirit sanctifies.
How to use Holy Water
Holy water is meant to be consumed in simple ways. It is known that Orthodox Christians may bless themselves with holy water by drinking it. It can be also sprinkled on items that are necessary for spiritual growth, shelter and stability. The place we reside can be home to many spiritual powers. Holy water, through the blessing of a house by a priest, is a means of cleansing a house from evil spirits.
Day-to-day use depends on the person and how they feel compelled. Perhaps a person who loves cooking would use it in their meals. A person who has children may give holy water to their children to drink before an exam or a big event.
The key to its use is through love. Love of other people through the giving of Holy Water to them, and love of oneself out of personal care and faith of healing. Most importantly, love of God by the faith that holy water will sanctify our souls and bodies.
It is important to see holy water as medicine both physically and spiritually. It is used to sanctify those who are personally subject to it (through personal consumption) or indirectly (blessings of houses and land). It’s really important to not trivialise holy water. The general rule is to treat holy water as a healing ointment (as opposed to a general food).
How to store Holy Water
To keep your Holy Water in good condition throughout the year:
- Ensure the bottle it is stored in is clean to start with and able to be sealed; glass is better than plastic.
- Keep the bottle in a dark, cool place, not in sunlight.
- Do not put your fingers into the bottle.
- Only top it up with water which has been boiled.
- A few drops in boiled water is the safest for drinking if you are concerned.
- If you are in any doubt about the physical quality of the water do not drink it.
- Dispose of Holy Water in the garden, not down the sink.
- Renew your supply at least once a year.
I hope that during the liturgical year you may be blessed through your holy water, that this water may be for the bestowing of sanctification; for the remission of sins; for the healing of soul and body; and for every expedient service.
- Theophany and the River Gods by Fr. Stephen de Young
- The Leave-taking of Theophany by Edith M. Humphrey
- Theophany shows the World to be the World by Fr. Stephen Freeman
1 “What you need to know about holy water” Author Unknown, Moscow (2003).