As the snowflakes floated softly to the ground on the chilly morning of January 18th, the faithful gathered at the St. Andrew Memorial Church in South Bound Brook, New Jersey to begin a marathon of prayer, taking them from Nazareth to the Jordan.
With the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, Prime Hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and the Diaspora, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, on this Eve of Theophany, celebrated a Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, followed by the blessing of water. Concelebrating with him were local clergy - Very Rev. Fr. Yurii Siwko, Very Rev. Fr. Ivan Lyshyk, Rev. Fr. Andrii Drapak, and Deacon Myroslav Mykytyuk. The seminarians of the St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary, Subdeacon Pavlo Vysotskyi, Reader Maksym Zhuravchyk, Reader Andrii Vatrych, seminarian Andrii Akulenko, and seminarian Roman Marchyshak beautifully sang the responses during the service.
The nave of the church was beautifully decorated for the Feast Day. To one side white lights twinkled happily upon the richly decorated Christmas Tree, while the remainder of the Nave was adorned with dozens of red and white poinsettias. Taking the focal point was the large font of water, which stood in the middle of the nave awaiting to be blessed.
The Gospel Reading this morning was from Luke 3:1-18 and set the scene at the River Jordan at the time of Tiberius Caesar, and how St. John the Forerunner preached repentance, and foretold of the coming of Christ.
Having concluded the Divine Liturgy, His Eminence stepped out on the Ambo and explained that now we enter the joy and mystery of the Eve of Theophany. He explained that historically, the early Christians celebrated both the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ together as a single Feast Day. They celebrated the “appearance” of God – first appearing to humanity as the newborn Child lying in the manger, and then appearing before the people before commencing His earthly mission, as He stood in the waters of the Jordan, revealing the Holy Trinity to mankind.
Archbishop Daniel explained that all holy water is bless by God. It does not matter if the water blessed on the Eve of Theophany, or in the morning, for it all has been touched by God. He stressed that we need to remember that the water is not some magical potion, but a tool afforded us by the Lord, to help those who use it with faith and love.
He continued by explaining that from old, people would take a bottle of holy water home with them and immediately walk through their homestead, blessing every corner of their home, of their barns, even sprinkling their animals to bring down the Grace of the Lord upon them. Often the women would even add some holy water to their cooking, adding it to the boiling water of the varenyky, and mixing it in with the kutia. Their day’s fast, as the Eve of Theophany is a strict fast day when many completely abstain from eating or drinking until after the blessing of the water, would be broken by ingesting a piece of prosphora and a few sips of holy water, before sitting down to their Lenten meal.
Archbishop Daniel explained that many nations and people continue honoring the pagan rituals of cleansing on this day, by jumping into the freezing waters of lakes and river in an attempt to rid themselves of sin. His Eminence advised against such action, as this is not the method to cleanse one’s soul, nor is it healthy for the human body to be submerged in freezing waters.
He gave an example of a man who once approached a Church Elder and asked him if it was wise to jump into the cold waters on this day. The staretz replied by explaining that the human body is much like a glass votive candle. The glass container holds the oil that keep the flame flickering before the holy icons. If for some reason the glass cracks, the oil will spill out and the flame will die. As such, the human body nourishes and sustains the God-given flame of life within, and we need to take care that we do not harm it or cause any damage that might extinguish the flame within us.
Therefore, His Eminence vehemently advised people to refrain from partaking in such senseless and dangerous activities, which are not sanctioned by the Church, nor of any benefit whatsoever to the soul.
Stepping down from the Ambo, Archbishop Daniel approached the large font of water in the center of the Nave. Three candles had bee lit upon its brim, while three sets of three candle candelabras were lit and held by the faithful who came and stood behind him.
His Eminence read profound and moving prayers, thanking God on behalf of all the world for His many gifts, and asking that this water be once again made the manifestation of God’s power and love in this fallen world. With these words those present witnessed the very Creation of the first waters.
“Today land and sea share in the joy of the world, and the world is filled with rejoicing. The waters beheld you, O Lord; the waters beheld you and they trembled. The river Jordan turns back on its course as it beholds the fire of the Godhead coming down upon it and entering it in the flesh. The river Jordan turns back in its course as it beholds the Holy Spirit descending in the likeness of a dove and hovering over you. The river Jordan turns back in its course as it beholds the Invisible made visible, the Creator existing in the flesh, and the Master in the likeness of a servant. The river Jordan turns back in its course, and the mountains leap for joy as they behold God in the flesh. And the clouds give voice and are filled with awe by the One who is coming, Light of Light, true God of true God; the One who, in the river Jordan, has drowned to death sin, the thorn of error, and the bonds of hell, and granted the baptism of salvation to the world. So also I, your unworthy and sinful servant overcome with fear, proclaim your great wonders: and I cry reverently to you and say:”
Having proclaimed these words, His Eminence turned to his right and accepted one of the triple candle holders offered to him, and tipping the flames into the water in the shape of a cross, he declared, “Great are you, O Lord, and wonderful are your works; no word suffices to give praise to your wonders.”
Archbishop Daniel repeated this action twice more, than removing his miter, and donning a face mask, he continued by breathing thrice over the waters in the form of a cross, each time saying, “O Loving King, come now and through the descent of the Holy Spirit sanctify this water.”
He then he His Eminence made the sign of the cross in the water three times with his hand, he prayed, “Wherefore, O Master, sanctify this water by your Holy Spirit.”
The blessing of the water was completed, as Archbishop Daniel, holding the blessing cross in both hands, dipped it in the water and made the sign of the Cross three times, while singing the following Tropar of Theophany:
At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father’s voice bore witness to You, calling You His beloved Son and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words, O Christ God, Who appeared and enlightened the world – glory to You.
Dipping a cup into the newly blessed water, His Eminence drank of the sweet cool water, before filling a bowl and walking through the church to bless all those gathered around. With smiles and laughter, the recipients squinted as the holy water landed on their cheeks and poured down their faces to bless them body and soul.
His Eminence paused at the camera, which was livestreaming the service, and sprinkled holy water upon it, wishing the Lord’s blessing upon all who had joined them through their mobile devices.
As the faithful approached the font, to fill their containers so they could take the water home, Archbishop Daniel invited all the viewers who were not able to physically participate in the service, to be sure to stop by their local parishes to get some holy water to take to their own homes. Before signing off, he invited everyone to join them later in the day at 6 PM for the Great Compline Service.
The cold and windy day sped by and before anyone realized it the sun had set, and the St. Andrew Memorial Church glowed warmly against the darkened sky. Inside, the candles warmly reflected off the golden halos of the saints on the icons, inviting everyone to come inside and seek shelter from the cold and dark world.
As the Seminarians solemnly sang a stirring song, “Щедрий вечір, добрий вечір, Добрим людям на здоров'я!” – “Good evening, good evening, good health to all the good people!”
As the curtains of the Royal Gates were opened the Compline Service began with the Trisagion Prayers being changed by the Seminarians whose voices echoed in the quiet and cavernous nave, echoing up to the tall dome.
The Compline service is the final church service of the day, and consists of three separate services – a vigil service imploring for and looking to God’s saving help, a penitential service, and a service of praise.
On Theophany, Great Compline ends with a Litiya, beginning with the Prayer of the Holy Prophet Simeon “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace…”, followed by the Tropar of the Feast and the blessing of the five loaves of bread, wheat, wine and oil, which signify not only the five loaves with which Christ fed the multitude, but the blessing of all of the world’s goods.
“Lord Jesus Christ our God, you blessed the five loaves in the wilderness and fed the five thousand. Likewise bless these loaves, wheat, wine, and oil, and multiply them in this city and through your whole world. Sanctify your faithful who will partake of them, for you yourself bless and sanctify all things, O Christ our God, and we give glory to you with your eternal Father and your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and forever.”
At the conclusion of the solemn and peaceful service, Archbishop Daniel turned to the faithful and delivered a moving sermon. He asked that we take a moment to reflect back on the path from Nazareth to Jerusalem where the Lord lived 30 years of His life and He hears St. John the Baptist saying, “Repent for the King of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) “I baptize with water, but among you stands One you do not know. He is the One who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie… Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:26-28)
The Lord approaches the Jordan River, taking upon Himself all the sinfulness of mankind, and steps into the slowly flowing waters. The river sensing the presence of God, and feeling the great sinfulness of mankind, begins to churn and the direction of the flow reverses as even nature is moved at this great moment in time, feeling the very presence of God.
His Eminence continued, stating that we can hardly imagine the immense feelings of the early Christians who felt the presence of God, as He walked among them. The Lord enters the waters and gives mankind a renewed hope at life, calling them to repentance, love, mercy, and forgiveness. All these things were not popular then and millennia later, are still not popular. Love is only popular when people want something from others. We manipulate our sense of mercy. One day we may feel merciful, but the next we turn cold. We treat the world around us harshly, forgetting the purpose the Lord gave us. Even though He reminded us via all His Prophets and Saints, and finally sent His own Son to remind us of our true calling, a calling that even the waters of the river felt and reacted to, we/humanity, a short three years later once again forget, and call for the Lord’s crucifixion.
This evening we once again hear the words of St. John, “Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand!” His Eminence reminded us that time is quickly running out. He continued by saying that he had read in the news that afternoon that a large asteroid was to fly very near the earth the very next day. All the scientists and astronomists were concerned of the effect it might have upon the planet, or even worse that its trajectory might change and that it might even hit the Earth causing a catastrophic event.
Archbishop Daniel stated that this news made him pause and remembering the Forerunner’s words that the Kingdom of God is at hand, wonder that if God forbid such a catastrophe were to occur tonight or tomorrow, would he be ready to face God? Are any of us prepared? Have we lived the life the Lord would have wished of us? Therefore, His Eminence, quietly encouraged everyone to pause, examine their lives, and give deep thought to the warning of St. John the Baptist – “Repent!”, because the time is short.
As we prepare to celebrate this glorious Feast Day of Theophany, and we get ready to enjoy our family meal, we have taken steps to arrange our homes for the festivities. Everything is cleaned, food is prepared, items have been put back in their proper places, and we eagerly await to open the door to our family, friends, and guests.
“However,” His Eminence asked, “have we cleaned our souls and cleansed our hearts of sin? Have we amended our actions, acted with mercy, repented of our sins? Are we prepared to open the doors of our hearts and allow Christ to enter?”
For the remainder of the evening, Archbishop Daniel asked us to prepare the path for the Lord as He enters the Jordan. To take the sins of our lives, step into the Jordan and as we step out, leave that old life behind, emerging cleansed, renewed by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Water which we will consume on Theophany.
His Eminence asked us to spend the evening in preparation for tomorrow, cleansing the dirt from our hearts, removing the anger, resentment, and all negative thoughts, so that we can happily welcome the Lord into our hearts on Theophany.
With these final words, he gestured for everyone to come forward to be anointed with the blessed oil. As the Seminarians once again broke out in song, singing Shchedryk, His Eminence anointed all the faithful, greeting each one warmly, and encouraging them as they embarked on their journey to Theophany.
As the faithful returned to their homes to celebrate the Lenten meal with their families, so the Seminary filled with the Church family. The hierarchs, clergy and seminarians, along with their families, gathered in the dining hall of the Seminary Building, which had been festively decorated, to enjoy a traditional Lenten Meal.
On this evening, much like on the Eve of the Nativity, Ukrainian Orthodox faithful, having strictly fasted all day, sit down to a 12 course Lenten Meal. Once again, the meal begins with Kutia, a wheat porridge, symbolizing Christ’s victory over death, as the kernel of wheat must first “die” and be buried, in order for it to emerge and bare fruit.
The meal started with a prayer, spoons clattered as everyone enjoyed their first bites of Kutia, the sweet honey syrup dribbling down their chins. Happy chatter was heard as everyone enjoyed the remaining Lenten dishes consisting of borsch, varenyky, buckwheat cabbage rolls, etc.
With souls replete by the day’s services, and the body nourished by the scrumptious meal, the evening concluded as everyone dispersed to their own homes and rooms, to contemplate upon Archbishop Daniel’s sermon, and prepare themselves to step into the waters of the Jordan, along with the Lord, in the morning.
A mere few hours later, the sun began to peak over the horizon, sparkling off the icicles which hung from the eaves of the homes and buildings in South Bound Brook, New Jersey. Despite the chill breeze, the birds chirped happily in the pine trees, seemingly singing with joy, as the faithful began to arrive at the St. Andrew Memorial Church to celebrate Theophany.
Once again, Archbishop Daniel, with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, assisted by numerous local clergy and seminarians, served the Divine Liturgy.
He read from the Gospel according to St. Matthew 3:13-17, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.””
In his sermon, Archbishop Daniel greeted everyone with the Feast Day of Theophany, and the Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan. He explained that this Feast Day has many names. First we call it the Baptism of Jesus, because Christ comes from Nazareth to the Jordan to be baptized. We also refer to this day as Theophany (Revelation of God), because God the Son enters the Jordan to be baptized, and in the process, the Holy Trinity is revealed to mankind.
He first was revealed to us as an infant child in a manger. Prior to this the world knew God as a sovereign and strict leader. The God who created the heavens and earth gave us the 10 Commandments which we were to strictly adhere to. The God of the Old Testament was strict and punished mankind for every sin, claiming an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth”. If you do harm, harm will be done you. If you did good, good would be repaid.
However, in the New Testament, God who get’s baptized, who reveals Himself to mankind, declares repentance, mercy, and love. Not an “eye for an eye”, but to “turn the other cheek”. Do not repay evil with evil, but with love. God has compassion and sympathizes with humanity, taken upon Himself the sins of mankind to redeem humanity.
His Eminence continued, stating that this Feast Day is also known as a day of Enlightenment. As we go to the doctor to have a tests done upon our ailing bodies, X-Rays, CAT Scans, etc. which reveal to us our physical condition, so on this day God, through His humanity, illuminates each of us. We are to take that flame of radiance which we receive through the waters of the Jordan back with us to enlighten our lives, and the world around us. He compared the light that gets ignited within us to that of the festive lights upon a Christmas Tree. As Christians, we are to allow that light to glow warmly in the darkened world, as the decorated tree glows warmly in a darkened room. We are to show the world, that even in the dark, a true Christian can reveal the Light of God, through acts of kindness and mercy. There is no better time than now to be illuminated by God and to reveal Him to others.
The Lord’s illumination of our souls calls us to declare our faith to the world, to reveal God to others. He stated that in the Early Church, all Christians were known as the “people who love one another”. Christians were recognized by the way they lived their lives. Imagine today, would the world recognize us as Christians by how we live? If we truly loved our neighbors would there be a war today in the eastern regions of Ukraine, where one Orthodox group of people, fights with another Orthodox group?
In Nigeria, the people celebrate Theophany by having the children eat rice, and the girls wear white dresses, called “rice” dresses to church. The reference to rice comes from a misunderstanding of the English word “rite” when referring to the “Rite of Baptism”. The people thought it was “Rice” instead of “Rite” and to this day rice holds a great significance for them.
His Eminence stated that he has pondered this use of rice and realized that we too would benefit from the reference.
“R” stands for “Rebirth”. We all need to step into the waters of the Jordan, to be born again with Christ.
“I” stands of “Initiation”. We need to be initiated in what it truly means to be a Christian in this world.
“C” is for “Confession”. We need to confess our sins. We need to repent and confess our sins. We need to admit to God our mistakes.
“E” stands for “Empowerment”. Once we have received the Grace of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to live a Christian life and to declare it before all the world.
His Eminence continued that this Feast Day focuses on God, and not on gift giving or time off from work. It is to signify that we celebrate that which we live, and if truly live the life of a Christian than we need to live as our faith declares. We are not to lie, not to cheat, not to overindulge, waste time and resources, spend time in ridiculous, senseless, and empty pursuits. However, we often do not constrain ourselves. We live as we wish, not as God wishes. And then we try to placate ourselves and redeem ourselves by lighting a candle in church, giving a donation, to somehow fool God, so he does not notice our shortcomings. In our sinfulness, we think we enjoy that moment of victory over someone else, having made a food of them, cheated them, or been victorious over them. But, that moment soon fades, and we are left with a guilt that eats at us. Evil would not exist in this world if we did not partake of it. Supply and demand. If we did not demand it, the supply would peter out. If we were true Christians, we would not need weapons, because we would love each other.
Archbishop Daniel stated that he is examining his life, and asks us each to examine our own, as to how we are reacting to our calling as Christians. Are we living as a Christian? We are all godly, made in the very image of God, by God, and called to sainthood. By enacting an evil deed, it is as if we are spitting in the face of God. We lose our humanity and godliness.
How can those lips that will partake of the Holy Eucharist, go out and curse their neighbor? How can the eyes that will be gazing hopefully upon the icons in church, have been looking at unclean images? How can the hands with which we make the sign of the cross upon ourselves, have done evil? If we are created in the Image of God, then we must act as if we are the image of God. We must ask the Lord to wash us of our sins. We must try. The Lord understand our weakness, but, he expects us to try to be Saints.
Try to be a Saint today. Smile at the sad person. Greet the person who turns from you. In the store say hello to anyone you meet. Even if they think you are odd, be odd, but be kind.
“Be a fool for the sake Christ. Be simple, in the name of Christ. Do not be arrogant or hard-hearted, without Christ.”
With these words Archbishop Daniel returned to the Altar and the Divine Liturgy continued, at the conclusion of which once again the service of blessing of water was celebrated.
Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear us. You sanctified the water when you consented to be baptized in the Jordan; now bless us who through the bowing of our heads signify our servitude. Grant that we be filled with your sanctification by the partaking of this water, and let it be for the healing of our souls and bodies, O Lord. For you are our sanctification, and to you do we give glory, thanksgiving, and worship, and to your eternal Father and your all-holy, gracious, and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and forever.
Having blessed the water in the font, Archbishop Daniel once again filled a container with the holy water and blessed all the faithful who had crowded into the church. Not forgetting the choir which sang so beautifully under the directorship of Dr. Michael Andrec, His Eminence climbed up to the choir loft to sprinkle the choir members with holy water.
To everyone’s delight, Vladyka, leaned over the choir loft wall, and sprinkled God’s blessings upon those below, showering them as if with Manna from Heaven. As the children squealed and the adults giggled, His Eminence made his way back to the Altar, and invited everyone to come forth to collect some holy water to take home with them, and to venerate the Cross. He presented everyone with a prayer card with an icon of the Theophany on once side, and a prayer on the reverse side. Archbishop Daniel asked that everyone recite the prayer, which was offered in both English and Ukrainian, before they consumed the holy water.
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko
МОЛИТВА ПЕРЕД СПОЖИВАННЯМ СВЯТОЇ ВОДИ
Господи Боже мій, нехай буде дар Твій святий і свята вода оця на відпущення гріхів моїх, на просвітлення розуму мого, на зміцнення душевних і тілесних сил моїх, на здоров'я душі і тіла мого, на підкорення пристрастей і немочі моєї по безмежному милосерді Твоєму та за молитвами Пречистої Твоєї Матері і всіх святих Твоїх. Амінь.
PRAYER BEFORE CONSUMING HOLY WATER
O Lord my God, may Your holy gift and this holy water be unto the forgiveness of my sins, the enlightenment of my mind, unto the strengthening of my spiritual and physical powers, unto the health of my soul and body, unto the taming of my passions and weaknesses, according to Your limitless mercy, through the prayers of Your Most-pure Mother and of all Your Saints. Amen.