Around the feast of Epiphany, Orthodox and Byzantine Christians will bless the nearest source of "living water" in commemoration of Jesus' baptism.
While Roman Catholics are accustomed to the annual blessing of water at the Easter Vigil, Eastern Christians perform a similar ceremony on Epiphany. This particular feast day in the Eastern Church has multiple levels to it and one of those is the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
In addition to a solemn blessing of water within the church building, many Orthodox and Byzantine Christians will schedule a time to bless the nearest source of “living water,” whether it is a lake, river, or even the ocean.
According to one Byzantine parish, “In living our Christian faith we are entrusted with being stewards of all good that God gifts to us. And this includes creation itself. Since water is so vital, we should respect the sources of water, especially closest to us. In Eastern Europe where our ancestors held the tradition of blessing local water, the nearest source of water might have been a small river or stream.”
Orthodox priest Father Simon Thomas adds, “This service asks God to bless each person as well as everyone in the city and region. In most areas, the blessing continues to the main body of water in the area … water can be destructive and overpower a community through floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis. We ask God to bless the waters and keep the balance that leads to life.”
In some regions, such as Eastern Europe, an additional tradition involves the throwing (and retrieving) of a cross into the source of water, to symbolize Christ’s blessing of the Jordan River.
On the blog Greeker than the Greeks, the author offers a brief description of what unfolds.
The tradition is that a priest, surrounded by brave young men and boys, throws a cross into the sea, either from the harbor or from a boat at sea; the minute the cross leaves the priest’s hand, the divers jump into the freezing water to catch the cross. The lucky one who finds and returns the cross is blessed by the priest. As the cross is victoriously brought back, the priest releases a white dove, as a symbol of the holy spirit. This tradition is carried out to commemorate the baptism of Christ and to bless the waters.
Often a rope will be tied around the cross in places where a dive into the water would be dangerous.
The tradition is a beautiful one with rich symbolism behind it, helping the Christian faithful recall Jesus’ baptism in a very powerful way.