MOSES LAKE — The words were in English, but the chant that spread itself over Moses Lake at Blue Heron Park Sunday was as old as Christianity itself.
The occasion was the Great Feast of the Theophany, the date on which Eastern Orthodox churches commemorate the Baptism of Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe the event, in which St. John the Baptist (or Forerunner, in Orthodox terminology) baptized Christ in the Jordan. When the ritual was completed, according to the Gospel accounts, the voice of God spoke from the heavens and said “This is (or ‘you are,’ in Matthew) my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove. The Theophany coincides with the western churches’ celebration of the Epiphany, or the visit of the Magi. In both traditions Jan. 6 ends the season of Christmas.
“‘Theophany’ means the manifestation of God,” said Fr. Paul Mmoses Jaroslaw of Elijah the Prophet Antiochian Orthodox Mission in Ellensburg, who presided over the ceremony. “It’s the manifestation of God the Father, who says ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,’ the Holy spirit comes n the form of a dove, and Christ who was God is standing in the Jordan River. For the first time in history, it’s clear that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God, but not one God only.”
The crowd wasn’t huge at Blue Heron, just a few families. Assisting Jaroslaw was Deacon Vasily Hinkle, also of Elijah the Prophet. The Mission has been expanded into Moses Lake for about a year and a half, according to Hinkle, and meeting at a member family’s home for vespers (evening worship) and Bible study.
The Antiochian Orthodox Church is part of the Eastern Orthodox Communion and traces its history back to Biblical times when the Apostle Peter established the first church at Antioch in the Middle East. In this country it is represented by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, with its administrative center in New Jersey. In Washington there are 12 Antiochian Orthodox parishes, including the one in Ellensburg.
The ritual began with Jaroslaw lighting a candle on a makeshift altar at the boat launch overlooking the lake. Five icons, or sacred images, held by parishioners stood to one side while a young cantor led the congregation in a series of chanted Biblical readings and hymns. After a long prayer, Jaroslaw took a wooden cross, walked to the edge of the water, and threw it into the water, blessing the entire lake. While two attendees braved the cold water to retrieve the cross, Jaroslaw filled a basin with the newly-consecrated water and sprinkled the crowd with it.
“Theophany is a more ancient holiday than Christmas,” Jaroslaw said. “Christmas didn’t start being celebrated really until the fourth or fifth century. Theophany was celebrated in the early church. The feast of Pascha, the Resurrection, the Feast of Pentecost and the Feast of Theophany were the main celebrations of the Church.”
Following the lakeside ritual, Jaroslaw, Hinkle and some of the crowd got into their cars and headed to the homes of some of the parishioners to bless their houses. This blessing treats the home like a little church, Jaroslaw said, and sanctifies it – and its occupants – as part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“(Theophany) teaches us that the only way to change anything in the world is through humility,” he said. “Not through power, not through wars, not through intimidation, but through the willingness to lower yourself. God lowered himself to his own creation. It’s amazing when you think about it.”