The final day of the Christmas season and one of the greatest feasts of the Eastern Church (celebrated since the second century) is Epiphany or Yordan (Ukr. Svyate Vodokhreshche). It commemorates the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan by St. John the Baptist when God appeared in the three Persons. As Jesus was standing in the water, the Holy Ghost in the appearance of a dove was seen above Him, while the voice of God the Father was heard to say, “This is my beloved Son in Whom l am well pleased!”
On the day before Vodokhreshche, January 18th, Ukrainian people observe strict fasting, going without food until dinner when they can partake of meatless dishes, borshch, varenyky, cabbage and fish. Kutya – a traditional sweet grain dish – is ritually enjoyed. The family sits down to the festive dinner after nightfall.
Tradition requires that as much noise as possible is to be made after dinner — children and grown-ups take up sticks and strike wooden fences, empty pots or anything else. It is believed that all this racket will bring well-being, fertility of the land and cattle. The Didukh, a beautifully decorated sheaf of wheat, which has been kept in the house since before Christmas, is taken out and burned “to warm the air” — an invitation for spring to come as quickly as possible.
On January 19th, it is the custom to bless water— a river, a lake, or the sea. or now in modern churches, a vessel of water — in a great ceremony including a procession with the carrying of banners and the cross. In Ukraine and sometimes in communities in the U.S. and Canada where Ukrainians had settled, this blessing of water was held outside at a local body of water such as a river or lake. The men of the community would build a large cross of ice blocks near where the water was blessed and dyed it red with beet kvas (a fermented beet juice). The incensing of the water by the priest signifies the descent of the Holy Ghost to Christ during His baptism. During the ceremony, three special candles are immersed in the water; this is to remind us that through Christ’s baptism our sins are destroyed and forgiven. After the ceremony, the people take some of the blessed holy water to keep in their homes during the coming year.
The holy water is taken home by the faithful, and used with prayer as a blessing. People will not only bless themselves and their homes by sprinkling each room with holy water, but will also drink it and offer it to all members of the family. The Orthodox Church teaches that holy water differs from regular water in that the very nature of the water is changed, that is, the water becomes incorrupt and all-healing.
In fact, sacred “Yordanska” (Jordanian) water has long been known for its healing properties. Many Christian rites use blessed water. Newborns are baptized and homes, buildings and institutions are blessed with holy water. It is used to fight sickness and disease. It is believed that holy water has many extraordinary properties that help combat negativity and protect from all evil.
Holy water is carefully stored in Ukrainian homes and, believe it or not, it never spoils or goes stale! Scientists attribute this to the silver particles that fall into the water from the cross during the actual blessing. As a rule, priests use silver crosses to perform this ritual. However, it is difficult to explain this phenomenon when large expanses of water are sanctified. It is obvious that the amount of silver on a cross would not suffice for so much water! And so the purity and clearness of holy Jordanian water remains a mystery to scientists to this very day.
The Blessing of the Home
It is the custom on Epiphany after the blessing of the water or in the days following this feast, for the priest to visit his parishioners to their home with holy water. In some areas, such as when distances visiting all the homes difficult, the father of the family may be the one who blesses the home.
The home is tidied and prepared in advance for this visit, for it would not be right to not have the home in order. When the priest comes, he is accompanied by one of the family the oldest or the youngest through the house. While he sprinkles the rooms with Holy water blessed on Yordan, the priest prays that the home is kept a place of love and security for the family that lives there and that the family he protected from evil of body and soul and be given abundantly of health, hope, and happiness, courage and confidence, awareness and assurance of His lasting Rove and presence.
This ceremony of the blessing of the home signifies the new beginning of both the new year and of baptism when the soul is cleansed.
The Feast of St. John the Baptist – January 20th
This feast is another synaxis, or day commemorating one associated with the feast of the previous day, as St. John the Baptist was present when Christ was at the river Jordan. On this day, the kolach which was on the table throughout the days between Christmas Eve and Yordan was taken out at daylight by the father and fed to the cattle to “last them until the new bread.”
Thus ends the holy clays of the Christmas season. Following this time, there is a new period of marriages, up until the beginning of Lent and the greatest holy day of all, Easter.
Christ is baptized! In the Jordan River!