Today is Epiphany (Theophany). For the Greek and Russian Orthodox community it commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River with a rite called the “Great Blessing of the Waters.” The celebration begins with the divine liturgy at the cathedral or church. Then a procession is formed. The procession moves down the road toward the harbor or any body of water nearby. The cherub icons lead the way, followed by the priests dressed in their best holiday vestments, then the VIPs (those very important people) of the city or village, followed by all the faithful. Sometimes, in the larger cities, there is a parade, music, military contingents, etc., to accompany the procession.
Once at the water, the priest conducts the sanctification ceremony and when he finishes, he throws a cross into the water (blessing the water). Then some of the young people of the village or city jump into the water and compete in retrieving the cross. The person who gets the cross first, swims back and returns it to the priest, who then gives a special blessing to the swimmer and his family.
What a privilege it was for me to observe this celebration in Heraklion, Crete, in January 1961 and again in 1962. I have never seen anything like it before or since. I did not, at 17 years of age and as a member of the American Baptist Church, have the slightest idea that there was such a day as Epiphany, much less understand its meaning! I do now, and I celebrate it today with all my Orthodox brothers and sisters around the world. The Apostle Paul wrote to Titus, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting” (and I add—“in yourself”). I experienced other epiphanies in Crete and I’m grateful for all of them, for they did “set in order the things that were wanting, in me” including learning about Epiphany. I’m glad too, in the depths of me, for being “left in Crete!”