Friday, January 06, 2012

The Byzantine Blessing of Water on the Vigil of the Epiphany

It well known that the feast of the Epiphany commemorates many events in the life of Christ. In the West, the coming of the Magi to adore the Christ Child is the Gospel of the Mass, and the predominant theme of the Office. In the East, where the feast is generally referred to as “Theophany”, the Baptism of Christ is the main object of the feast, while the Latin tradition reserves it to the octave of Epiphany. One of the most beloved Epiphany customs among Byzantine Christians is the blessing of Holy Water with a particular rite of blessing, which may be done on the vigil of the feast, in conjunction with Vespers, or in the morning, in conjunction with Matins and the Divine Liturgy. The blessing at an evening service is seen here in two parts, celebrated at the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic church of St. Elias in Bampton, Ontario. The full text of the service may be read in English here. Our readers should also note that St. Elias’s youtube channel has over 300 videos, a beautiful archive of the Byzantine liturgical tradition's riches.


Part 2


The predominance of the Lord’s Baptism as the theme of Epiphany in the East has had a surprisingly strong influence on the Roman Rite in the West. In the Carolingian period, a special series of antiphons for the Office of the octave day of Epiphany was created, either directly borrowed from or modeled on texts of the Byzantine Rite. For example, the idiomel which closes the Byzantine service says:
Let us the faithful praise the greatness of God’s dispensation concerning us. For in our transgression he, alone clean and undefiled, becoming man, is cleansed in Jordan, sanctifying me and the waters, and crushing the heads of the dragons on the waters. Let us therefore draw water with gladness, brethren. For the grace of the Spirit is being given invisibly to those who draw with faith by Christ, God and the Savior of our souls.
Among the proper antiphons of the Octave of Epiphany, we find the following:
The Savor crushed the head of the dragon, in the river Jordan, and delivered all men from his power.
John the Forerunner rejoiceth when at the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan, joy cometh to all the world; forgiveness of our sins is given. Let us all cry unto Him, ‘o Thou, that hallowest the waters, have mercy on us!’
These antiphons were removed from the Use of Rome by the Tridentine reform, but continued to be sung in many other uses; they are still found in the liturgical books of the religious orders, such as those of the Dominicans, Cistercians and Old Observance Carmelites. The second prophecy in the Byzantine service is Isaiah 55, 1-13, which is read partially in the Roman Breviary at Matins, and more fully in the Dominican and various medieval breviaries; the commemoration of the Lord’s Baptism is emphasized by the fact that this reading is also used at the Western baptismal rite par excellence, the Easter Vigil. The third prophecy, Isaiah 12, 3-6, appears in many medieval Mass lectionaries as an Epistle for the days within the octave of Epiphany, with the note “according to the text of the Septuagint”, rather than the text of the Vulgate. In 1890, an unusually long and elaborate blessing of waters on the Vigil of the Epiphany was added to the Roman Ritual. In several parts of Central Europe where Latin and Byzantine Catholics lived near each other, the former had adopted various versions of the Byzantine blessing; the new ritual was created to replace them with something more in keeping with the spirit of the Roman Rite. (See this article in the American Ecclesiastical Review 1915.) This blessing has become increasingly popular in churches where the usus antiquior is regularly celebrated. Finally, in 1955, when the octave of Epiphany was abolished, the octave day, January 13th, was formally renamed “The Baptism of the Lord”; in the post-conciliar Roman Rite, this feast is now kept on the Sunday after Epiphany. (Where the Epiphany itself is kept on the Sunday nearest to its ancient and traditional date, the Baptism is on the following Monday.)