I am watching as a group of teens leaps into the cold water of the Indian River in front of me. They begin swimming furiously toward a bobbing object in the water about 75 yards away. When they converge on it, mayhem ensues for a second until the victor is triumphant, and a fourteen year-old boy is excitedly waving a white cross over his head.
This is in commemoration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River 2000 years ago, Greek Orthodox style. No one seems to know how old the ceremony is, but certainly it dates back into antiquity. Here in America, the largest such event is right across the peninsula from me in Tarpon Springs, but in Melbourne, it is a much more modest affair attended by about 100 folks, and only about a dozen kids actually dip in the water.
The feast day is today, January 6, but usually the church conducts the annual Blessing of the Waters on the Sunday following Jan 1 (this year, January 3). The priest blesses the Holy Water at the church as part of the Divine Liturgy, and afterwards everyone drives to the Pineda Inn on US 1, where a small procession follows him out on a pier. Then the priest says some prayers and asks for the Lord’s blessing of the water before he tosses the cross into the river.
It is a considerable honor to retrieve the cross. Years later, many Greeks will point with pride to framed crosses sitting prominently on their desk tops, a souvenir of their youthful triumph.
The Russian Orthodox ceremony, by contrast, is kind of hard core, which is no surprise, I suppose, given the nature of that dour and sturdy folk. They cut a cross-shaped hole in the ice of the nearest lake or river, and people dip themselves into the frigid waters three times. I assume that medical personnel are standing by during this process.
Theophany is the third most important feast in the Orthodox Church, and it is, of course, celebrated all over the world. Generations of children have participated in it-a cultural tie that binds them to their families, their parish, and their Faith. I hope that, two millennia from now, Christian children will still be able to testify so openly to their love of Jesus and his servant John the Baptist.
Yet we live in dark times, and the light of Christianity is almost extinguished, even in the West where it once had its strongest support. Islam is spreading to Europe, and even into America’s heartland, and our culture is under attack on every front. The courts tell us that we must accept homosexual marriage and abortion on demand. The media tells us that sexual promiscuity is the new normal and that intolerance is our biggest problem. Our politicians tell us they have more interest in protecting Israel than our own borders. College professors tell our children that Christianity is a fraud and that Christ was a charlatan.
Such is the world we have inherited. Such is the world we have built. Yet in every small town in America, in every farming community, in every village and city, in the living rooms of tens of millions of people, and especially in our churches and parishes, there lies hope, because we hold in our hands the ability to rise up and resist this evil, and we have Christ’s promise that we will ultimately win. We can and will push back this veil of darkness, and we will do it by living our lives and serving our God, one small and large act at a time.
The tiny parish of St. Katherine’s in Melbourne, Florida, will surely not save the world all by itself just because they celebrate Epiphany in the Orthodox style the way their parents and grandparents did before them. But it’s a small step in the right direction, and I’m glad I was there to watch it.