NEW LENOX – Despite sunshine, the wind chill kept the temperatures Jan. 6 hovering around zero.
But that didn’t stop Matthew Stengel, 23, of Homer Glen, from wading into the icy waters of Hickory Creek in New Lenox three times – even though he forgot a towel and his knee-high boots.
Stengel, a catechumen at St. Luke Orthodox Church, South Chapel in New Lenox since June, was retrieving a cross as part of a water blessing for the feast of Epiphany.
“This is my first time doing it,” Stengel said. “It’s a big honor.”
Even the cross itself had special meaning. Stengel’s pastor, the Rev. Andrew Harrison, said the late Mother Alexandria, founder of Transfiguration Monastery in Pennsylvania, had given him the cross many years ago.
Harrison said he’s performed the water blessing in Israel with the cross three times. The first was in 1998, the last was in 2008.
“We would go to the Jordan River, have the prayers and throw the cross in the river,” Harrison said.
Stengel said he was happy to retrieve – even though he didn’t volunteer for the role or ask for it. As one of the youngest – if not the youngest – chapel member present, Stengel felt the honor belonged to him.
“They shouldn’t be getting into the water this time of year,” Stengel said of the senior members. “It’s really cold.”
A timeless mystery
The word “epiphany” – or “theophany” as the day is also called – means “manifestation.” In this case, it’s the manifestation of Jesus as God to the world. In the early days of the Christian church, the feast day celebrated four events: Jesus’ birth, the visitation of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ first miracle – changing water into wine.
Epiphany is traditionally celebrated Jan. 6, with variances. Roman Catholics in the United States observe Epiphany on the first Sunday after Jan. 1. Eastern Orthodox churches, following the Gregorian calendar, celebrate Epiphany Jan 6. Those on the Julian calendar will observe Epiphany on Jan. 19.
For Eastern Orthodox Christians, the celebration includes blessing water, often an outside body of water, Harrison said.
“In Russia, they cut holes in the ice and people actually dive in,” Harrison said. “I don’t do that. Someone just retrieves it. I have a string tied to it anyway so I don’t lose it.”
The reason for the water blessing is consistent with Orthodox spirituality.
“Christ’s baptism was outside in a river,” Harrison said. “Anything liturgically done is kind of like those events in Christ’s life – they’re eternal events. So when we go down to the river, we don’t refer to something happening in the past; it’s something happening now. It gets mystical. We’re entering a timeless history and we’re present at the moment Christ is baptized. You just don’t get that [sense] inside of a church building.”
Harrison recalled his first outdoor water blessing – in 1962 when he was a seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York.
“A brook runs right through the seminary,” Harrison said. “I had on a cassock, and the boots were red, and I went down into the creek to retrieve the cross that Father [Alexander] Schmemann threw in.”
Other notable Epiphany water blessing sites through the years for Harrison include Beaver Creek in Pennsylvania, the Platte River in Colorado and the Pacific Ocean while staying in California.
“We actually got together with a priest from a Greek church and sailed down the harbor,” Harrison said. “We threw the cross in the bay and a diver went after it ... it was kind of interesting doing Greek chants with the boats around us.”