Why are houses blessed each year with the Epiphany/Jordan water? One reason is that the prayers for the blessing definitely state this. The blessing is asked: “For those who shall draw of it and take of it unto sanctification of their homes.” “And may it be unto all those who draw it, and shall partake of it unto the purification of their souls and bodies, unto the sanctification of their houses, and unto every expedient service.” “Grant also unto all who shall be sprinkled therewith, and shall partake therof, and shall anoint themselves therewith, sanctification, blessing, purification, and bodily health.”
We are instructed: “Wherefore, O brethren, let us partake of that water with joy, for the grace of the Spirit is invisibly imparted unto him who, with faith, does draw thereof, by Christ our God, who also is the Saviour of our souls.”
Do you have the faith that the Holy Spirit is in the water and that this grace is given to you and those in your household when your house receives its yearly blessing, or has this tradition fallen out of your religious calendar life?
To prepare for the visit of the priest, have the following: A candle, matches, an icon or cross, a bowl of blessed water, a slip of paper with the first (Christian) names of the family members and others residing in the house, and any objects which you might want blessed like crosses, icons, etc., on a cloth-covered table.
When the priest arrives put the pets outdoors, turn off all radios, televisions, stereos, etc., and put out all cigarettes. Everyone present should participate by standing around the table and joining in the singing and prayers.
If it is customary to give a gift to the priest, give it to the person who accompanies him, or if he is alone give it to him in an envelope at the end of the service.
The Great Fifty Days
The Easter Season is the oldest in the calendar, covering fifty days between the two original feasts of the Church: Easter and Pentecost. The whole season is a festival season. All the Sundays are part of the season and so are called “Sundays of Easter” not “Sundays after Easter.” To illustrate: St. Thomas Sunday is known as the 2nd Sunday of Easter, not as the 1st Sunday after Easter, and the Myrrhbearing Sunday is known as the 3rd Sunday of Easter, not as the 2nd Sunday after Easter. This continues until the Sunday before Pentecost, which is devoted to the Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council and is the 7th Sunday of Easter.
Jesus appeared after His Resurrection until the day of His Glorious Ascension. The intervening days were days of glorious excitement for the Disciples - and then - with the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they experienced still another kind of spiritual joy.
The one thing they did not do was to celebrate Easter Day and then go their own way and forget the whole thing. With great excitement they greeted each other with the message: “Christ is Risen!” This they gave as a statement of fact or news. It is interesting that some of the saints greeted everyone with this greeting all year ‘round.
Because Pascha is so special, the “routine” is broken.
1. Christ is Risen is sung for 40 days until the Holy Day of Ascension. We greet our friends with the joyful “Christ is Risen” and reaffirm those who have greeted us with “Indeed, He is Risen.”
2. During this season and especially on Monday and Tuesday, we go to the graves of our loved ones because the prayers for the rest of their souls begin with the joyful tidings of the Resurrection. This is called “Radonitsa” or “Joyful.” It is customary to leave a colored blessed egg on the grave.
3. We do not kneel in prayer until Pentecost when special prayers are read in the church after we are invited to kneel.
4. The week following Pascha, the curtain behind the Royal Gates is left pulled back and all the doors in the iconostas are left open in remembrance that Christ had opened the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven to us by His Resurrection.
5. The artos, a large bread stamped with a cross or an ikon of the Resurrection, which was blessed at the end of the Easter Liturgy, is placed on a table in front of the church. It is broken and distributed on Saturday. This carries on the rite of the Apostles who put aside bread at their meals in memory of Christ after He had ascended into heaven. In some churches the table with the artos is placed before the opened Royal gates when there is no service.
6. There is no fasting all of Bright week.
7. The plastanitza, winding sheet, is kept on the altar until Ascension Day.
8. An outdoor procession is made on Bright Monday with the gospel being read at the four corners of the church.
Truly: “This is the day which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24).
Blessing of Water
One very beautiful ritual we have in the Orthodox Church is the blessing of water on Epiphany (Yordan). Water is blessed on the vigil of the feast. In some churches it is repeated on the day of the feast after the Liturgy. In some areas, clergy and people go in procession with cross and banners to a nearby river or lake and the blessing takes place. Those who visited Leningrad saw the place on the river outside the Winter Place where water was blessed on this day. A temporary canopy or shelter was built on the river; a cross carved of blocks of ice was placed here. A colorful procession would wend its way down the banks of the river and the ceremony would take place.
A beautiful prayer is prayed at the blessing. The priest asks the Lord that: “He may impart unto these waters the blessing of Jordan, so that all who take from it and partake of it may do so unto the cleansing of body and soul, unto healing from sufferings, unto the sanctification of their homes and unto every benefit,” and that “He may sanctify the water and grant unto all those who touch it or anoint themselves with it sanctification, health, purification and benediction.”
The cross is immersed in the water. This total immersion symbolizes the total immersion of Christ in the waters of Jordan at His Baptism at the start of His ministry. Christ showed repentance on behalf of all people and prefigured his death, burial and resurrection. Similarly, our baptism signifies our entrance into this transforming process and the continuing process in our lives. A verse from matins on Epiphany states: “By descending into the water we ascend to God.”
The readings from the Scriptures, the litanies, prayers and hymns of this day all serve to tell us the great meaning of Epiphany, and of the entire Christian faith and what these mean to us individually and to the whole world. We only have to listen to the service carefully for this meaning to become clear.
Christmas Eve Customs
Various religious seasons and Holy Days are rich in customs among the Russian Orthodox people. This is especially so with Christmas Eve, which has a special place in the hearts of the Slavic people. The customs, by symbolism, express the joy and hope they anticipate at the coming of Jesus Christ.
The week before Christmas the entire house is cleaned and aired. The yard and any outlying buildings are put in order as they are preparing for a special guest - Jesus Christ.
Christmas Eve itself has various names among our people: Sochelnik, Schedry Vecher (Bountiful Evening), Svayte Vecher (Holy Evening), Velia (Holy Vigil).
In the evening, after all the animals were fed and given special attention because they were present at the Birth of Christ, all the family members bathe and put on freshly laundered clothes. The children either run outdoors or keep a special vigil at a window waiting for the first star to appear, for when the head of the household was informed he announced that the special supper was to follow.
Everyone in the household gathers at the table which has hay under a white tablecloth symbolizing the manger. One blessed candle standing in a container of grain is found in the center of the table. The meal is to be eaten by the light of this Christmas candle. It represents Christ, the Light of the World. It is prayed that this Light will bless this grain which will be used as part of next year’s planting.
All stand as the head of the house begins the meal with the Christmas Tropar. And he may ask for a special blessing for those gathered and those who are absent from the table.
After everyone is seated, the meal begins with kutia (boiled wheat or other cereal) and honey. The Church calls specifically for this to be served. The book explains that this serving brings to mind an ancient tradition when many people were Christened on this day. They prepared themselves with strict fast and abstinence from food and broke this fast with kutia and honey. The honey was a symbol of the sweetness of the sacred mysteries and the wheat of the kutia a symbol of life eternal. As kutia is also used at memorial services, in some families they speak with love of those who have departed in such a way that their lives are included in the occasion. They are just physically absent, but their memories are eternalized.
In some families, a roll or prosphora is broken and shared. Then garlic dipped in honey is passed when good wishes are extended to those present. A kiss may be shared and wishes may be for “love between us to stay as sweet as honey.”
As all the food has been placed on the table at the same time, the head of the house then starts to pass one by one some of the twelve courses. The meal is leisurely; everyone takes at least a spoonful of every course and no one leaves the table until the meal is finished.
The foods are made without meat, eggs or dairy products and consist of many legume dishes. These vary among families from different villages but may include mushrooms, lima beans, dried pea or sauerkraut soup; fried mushrooms, bobalki (tiny biscuits of yeast leavened dough); perohi with sauerkraut or potatoes; mashed potatoes with sautéed onions; meatless borsch; holupki with dried mushrooms; halushki with cabbage, etc.
When the meal is finished, the Christmas kondak is sung, the kutia is placed near the sheaf of wheat in the icon corner and everyone goes into the sitting room to crack and eat nuts until it is time to go to the Church for the evening service. The subdued atmosphere of the supper is truly a spiritual prelude to the service.
Customs in the Month of August
August has several special days on the Church Calendar. The most celebrated are the Transfiguration and the Dormition. For each of these we bring something to church to bless. For the Transfiguration we bring fruit, especially grapes, and for the Dormition we bring herbs and flowers.
We can read about the Transfiguration of Our Lord in Matthew 17:1-9 and in Luke 9:28-36. An eyewitness account is given in 2 Peter 1:10-19. Peter was present as were James and John. He writes: “We … were witnesses of His majesty … when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory. (Saying) This is my beloved son … This voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with Him in the holy mount …” It is the custom to bring to the church, on this day, the first fruits of fruit-bearing trees. In the East and more southern climates they bring grapes; in Russia it was customary to bring apples. There is a special prayer for each. In the prayer for the blessing of grapes, the fruit of the vine, the priest asks for the Lord to bless them so that they may be to us for rejoicing, and that He may accept the gift of these fruits unto the cleansing of our sins. This prayer is understandable when we understand it in a spiritual way. Grapes are used to make the wine which is used for Holy Communion. When the priest blesses the other first-fruits, like apples, he prays that the Lord may receive our gifts to His eternal treasury and grant us an abundance of worldly gifts.
The Dormition of the Mother of God has several other names. The Falling Asleep, Repose, and in this country many call it the Assumption. The Church looks especially colorful and is fragrant with herbs as more and more people come forth and put their bouquets on special tables in the front of the church. One woman told me that she no longer brings flowers for blessing because she did not know what to do with the flowers later. The flowers may be dried and used in an arrangement in the ikon corner, or they can be added to sachets. As for the herbs (parsley, mint, basil, dill, etc.), they can also be dried. Bunch them together or make a wreath.
We must remember that not in the long distant past, blessed flowers and herbs were used as incense. A bit was thrown on the warm coal stove where they freshened the air. They were also used as additives to vaporizers. Our people were knowledgeable about which herbs and flowers were to be used for what. In the blessing prayer we ask God to bless the fragrant herbs and colorful flowers that they may always remind us of His healing power.
Customs and traditions give added joy to the parish family just as they do to our personal families. How bland either one becomes when these customs are discarded.
Holy Thursday Evening
On Thursday evening in Holy Week we have what are commonly called “The Reading of the Twelve Gospels.” Actually twelve readings are made. These begin with the last instructions of Christ concerning living life according to His instructions, continue on with the historical facts concerning His betrayal, arrest, condemnation to death and end with His crucifixion.
In between these readings some of the most beautiful hymns in the Orthodox Church are sung.
Candles are held during the readings and it is traditional to put a notch with your fingernail into the end of the candle when a reading is finished. This is a way our ancestors had of keeping a count of the readings.
In many parishes, candles are held by the trustees of the parish. Twelve men stand at the first reading and with each reading one man holding a candle is eliminated from the group after each reading.
It is sad that this is now one of the poorest attended services of Holy Week. Perhaps following the readings in your Bible will add to your understanding and significance of the Last days of Christ. As many of our readers live a great distance from an Orthodox Church, some may be ill and cannot attend church, we give the readings. Read them in church or at home.
Why does the Orthodox Church seem to differ so much from the other Christian Churches in its celebration of the Nativity of Christ?
The dogma of the Incarnation is presented differently. The Orthodox emphasis originated in Alexandria, which stresses the Divine Person of Christ. The ikon of the Nativity is important to us. This ikon dematerializes the body and human features of Christ and rejects the dimensional objects like statues as in the Christmas crib which plays such a large parting the other Christian Churches. The other churches follow a system which originated in Antioch and which stresses the humanity of Christ.
Of course, both traditions believe in the humanity and divinity of Christ; only each stresses one over the other. This can more clearly be seen in the “carols” (Kolyndi) or Christmas hymns. It is very interesting to analyze these. They show the difference in the way the churches celebrate this great day.
Why Two Easters?
Each year we see this question answered in many Orthodox papers, only to see it repeated the following year because the explanation has been forgotten.
This year we will not give the usual answers, but we will concentrate on the Biblical reason.
If we look at any of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, we will see that Christ was crucified and resurrected after, not before, nor during the Jewish Passover.
An Easter that coincides with the Jewish Passover or comes before it is incorrect historically and religiously. It is, in fact, in direct contradiction to the words of the Holy Gospels. Let us study the words from St. Matthew 26:1-5:
“And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said unto His disciples, Ye know that after two days is the feast of the Passover, and the Son of Man is betrayed to be crucified. Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest who was called Caiaphas. And consulted that they might take Jesus by subtility, and kill him. But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people.”
A look at the other Gospels, especially Mark 14:1 and Luke 22:1 will further strengthen the correct position of our church. It rests upon a firm historical truth as shown in the Bible.
Artos - What is it?
The Artos is a large round loaf of bread which is blessed on Easter Day and placed on an analoy-table. Those in church come forward and kiss the ikon of the Resurrection which covers the top of it. The Artos remains in the church until the following Sunday when the priest reads a prescribed prayer over it and then distributes it to those present.
What is the significance of the Artos? It reminds us of the living presence of Christ among us. After His Resurrection, Christ appeared several times to His Apostles. They didn’t know when He would appear again, so they always set a place for Him at the table in case He came. They didn’t want to leave the place vacant at the place where He usually sat so they placed the bread on the plate. After they would finish eating, they would stand, hold up the bread and exclaim: “Christ is Risen!”
We still practice this custom because the Apostles continued it even after they separated to preach the Gospel in different lands. There disciples continued this practice. The Holy Fathers of the Church set Easter Sunday for its continuance as a reminder of the Resurrected Christ’s invisible presence among us and to perpetuate the thought that He is mankind’s true Bread of Life.
The traditional grace said at meals from the eve (after sundown) of Christmas until the end of the month is the Tropar for the feast. The Holy Day of the Nativity is a six-day feast. The Tropar reads: "Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone upon the world the light of wisdom. For by it, those who worshipped the stars, were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, Glory to Thee!"
"Rozdestvo Tvoje Christe Boze nas, vozsija mirovi svit razuma: v new bo zvizdam sluzasciji, zvizdoju ucachusja, Tebe klanatisja Solncu pravdy, I Tebe vid’iti so vysoty Vostoka, Hospodi slava Tebi."
Since the Feast of Nativity extends right up to the Feast of the Circumcision, which is followed by the Pre-feast of the Epiphany there is no kneeling in prayer nor fasting for this 13-day period.
Christ is Risen
Our Orthodox Churches will resound with the joyous Pascha-Easter anthem for forty days after Easter – Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. Isn’t it wonderful to know that we cleave to a Savior and Lord that lives? Jesus is alive!
The custom is still continued in our Orthodox Churches of intoning the resurrection of Christ at the midnight service outdoors in front of the church building. This practice demonstrates clearly the vital importance of declaring the message of Christ’s resurrection to the whole world. We cannot keep it within the four walls of the church building. The world cannot hear us if we muffle and restrict the sound of the Gospel inside our temples of worship.
This is also the reason the reading of the Resurrection Gospel at the Easter Vesper services is intoned in as many languages as possible: to get the Good News out to the maximum number of people. Language should never be a barrier to bringing salvation to human souls.
“Christ is Risen from the dead!” Either the empty Tomb is crucial to our eternal welfare, or we are just going through the motions of religion to please ourselves or those to whose judgment we are sensitive out of self-interest. Christ is Risen! This is the key.