Blessing the Waters is an icy cold affair that's not for the faint of heart.
After over a year of canceled events due to the world pandemic, Christian denominations around the world held raucous celebrations for the Feast of the Epiphany. The day was marked by two distinct celebrations, with Catholics observing Three Kings Day and the Orthodox celebrating the Baptism of Christ.
In Vatican City, Pope Francis held a traditional service for the Epiphany, a Greek word that means manifestation. The day celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ and commemorates the visit of the three Magi to the Child Christ. In his homily, the Holy Father called the Magi’s trek to Bethlehem a pilgrimage fueled by their desire. Pope Francis said:
They had excellent reasons not to depart. They were wise men and astrologers, famous and wealthy. Having attained sufficient cultural, social and economic security, they could have remained content with what they already knew and possessed. Instead, they let themselves be unsettled by a question and by a sign: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star …” (Mt 2:2).
In Madrid, Spinish Catholics rallied in celebration after the traditional “cabalgata” parades were canceled, in 2021. This year, the Three Kings Parade went off without a hitch, with some 7,000 people lining the streets. The Magi – Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar – donned their finery and sat atop massive floats to wave at the parade goers.
In past years, the tradition has been for the Magi to huck sweets down to the crowd from their floats, but this year the sweets were held back due to pandemic protocols. After the parade, the Magi were seated to welcome children (much as Santa Claus does in malls), but the kids were not allowed to get too close to the kings, per social distancing orders. Everyone at the affair can be seen clad in masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Despite the slight alterations over pandemic concerns, the parade went off without a hitch, with performers putting on a great show. One of the best spectacles were the enormous polar bear puppets, which were hooked up to parade marchers to make puppets look as though they were walking.According to AP News, the following day saw the Spanish royal family distribute medals of distinction to 16 soldiers, in an Epiphany ceremony that dates back to 1782.
In Istanbul, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I celebrated a special Mass to commemorate the Baptism of Christ. Bartholomew, who AP News notes recently recovered from COVID-19 and underwent heart surgery, then oversaw the traditional “Blessing of the Waters.”
Patriarch Bartholomew tossed a wooden cross into the waters of the Golden Horn and a group of swimmers dived into the cold waters to retrieve it. This year’s cross was nabbed by Galip Yavuz, 36, who said it was his 5th year competing in the friendly competition. The winner is said to have good luck all year.
Cyprus too held the Blessing of the Waters competition, although it was a smaller event than usual, due to the world pandemic. Just three swimmers braved the cold waters of Larnaca Bay in order to retrieve the wooden cross. This ceremony was presided over by leader of the Greek Orthodox Church Archbishop Chrysostomos II, who threw the cross.
Bulgaria’s Christian communities were not to be outdone by the other water-based festivities. In the Tundzha river, by the town of Kalofer, hundreds of men and boys stood in the icy cold waters to dance and sing. Some of them were even carrying instruments like bagpipes and large drums that could barely be held above the water.
The men performed their revelry in traditional outfits, waving Bulgarian flags, and standing arm-in-arm. While the men look like they are extremely cold, this is without a doubt the most boisterous celebration of the day. There were no masks to be seen as the attendees threw caution to the wind for this unique Christian celebration.
Poland was the hotspot of Epiphany celebration, with 667 parades in Polish towns and cities. While the number of parades is nothing to scoff at, CNA notes that prior to the pandemic there were 820 annual parades on Epiphany. Still, this year there were about 200 more parades than there were in 2021.
In the Polish celebration, the parade is almost like a Nativity pageant. The Magi ride their camels along the parade route, as though they were following the star. At the end of the parade, the three actors portraying the Magi dismount and bow before Jesus and the Holy Family. Along the way, they are supported by the faithful singing hymns and Christmas carols.