Evidence from the fourth century suggests that the Epiphany blessing of waters was celebrated in Antioch and Egypt. John Chrysostom, in his homily On the Baptism of Christ preached in Antioch in AD 387, testifies to the practice of drawing sanctified water:
For this is the day on which he was baptized and sanctified the nature of the waters. Therefore also on this solemnity in the middle of the night all who are gathered, having drawn the water, set the liquid aside in their houses and preserve it throughout the year, for today the waters are sanctified.
Chrysostom describes the effects of the liturgy on the nature of the waters as rendering them without blemish and completely pure for a period as long as two or three years. He also affirms that “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”is the one who sanctifies the waters. Chrysostom provides two useful pieces of information: the celebration occurred in the middle of the night, and the participants drew water, took it home, and, at least presumably, used it throughout the year.1
Epiphanius of Salamis (died AD 403), writing in the fourth century, suggests that Egyptian Christians practiced the drawing and storing of water on a feast celebrated on Tobi 11:
The Lord’s birth in the flesh took place on the eleventh of the Egyptian month Tobi … Thus in Egypt itself, and in many countries, everyone draws water on the eleventh of the Egyptian month Tobi and stores it up.2
The oldest prayer for the blessing of the water was preserved for us in The Euchologion of Serapion (died. after 362), the Bishop of Thmuis in Lower Egypt. It is almost certain that the prayer itself dates back well before his time and is also witness to the early practice of the Church.3
Antoninus, a sixth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem (approximately AD 570), described the celebration of Epiphany at the Jordan river. He mentions a large gathering of people for the vigil of Epiphany, with the clergy descending into Jordan itself for the blessing of the waters after Matins has been completed. He also testifies to Alexandrians in boats who pour aromatic substances into the water after the rituals of sanctification have concluded, and then draw some of the water, sprinkling their boats prior to departing on their sea journey. The ritual contained a liturgy of the Word with selections from the Old and New Testaments.4
The service in our church has a Liturgy of the word containing prophesies from the Old Testament a Pauline reading and a Gospel reading followed by a long prayer structured as an anaphora. This prayer is found also in the Byzantine, West Syrian and Armenian traditions. This is a testimony to the ancient roots of this tradition among churches with different liturgies.
The anaphora starts by the usual dialogue between the priest and the people starting with the Trinitarian greeting; “The love of God the Father...” then “Lift up your hearts” and “Let us give thanks to the Lord” to which the people make the appropriate responses.
The priest then recites the prayer “Thou art the Lord, God, the Great...” which is arranged in a Eucharistic fashion. It has two sections separated by the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts ...) The first section is a thanksgiving prayer to God on account of his creation and his providence; “By Thy power, out of that which was not, Thou hast made all things to be. Thou hast governed all the creation by Thy might, and ruled the world by Thy care.” The second section is a thanksgiving prayer to God on account of the incarnation and salvation; “Thou hast come into the earth, and took the form of a servant, and became in the likeness of men. Thou, O our Master, because of the compassion of Thy mercies, wast not pleased to behold the human race overpowered by the Devil. Behold, Thou hast come and saved us. We confess Thy grace and declare Thy mercy, and hide not Thy beneficence, for Thou hast come and saved us.” So far the structure is very similar to the anaphora of Saint Basil except that the thanksgiving is addressed to the Son, as is the case with the Liturgy of Saint Gregory.
The priest continues, quoting Baruch 3, (which had been already read in the prophesies); “Thou, while still God, didst show Thyself upon earth, and walked among men.” Then, signing the water three times with the Cross, he says; “Sanctify this water and grant it the grace of the Jordan.”, an epiclesis addressed to the Son, rather than the Father, mimicking once again the Liturgy Of Saint Gregory. Here it is the son himself who is invoked to sanctify the water. But after this a second longer epiclesis follows asking the Son to sanctify the water by sending His Holy Spirit: “Thou hast sanctified the waters of the Jordan through the coming down upon them of Thine Holy Spirit, from Heaven. ...even now, through the coming of Thine Holy Spirit upon it...”
Sanctify this water.
Let it be a spring of blessing,
A pure gift, A loosing from sins,
A chaser away of diseases,
A terror unto the demons.
Let non of the adverse powers come nigh unto it.
Fill it with the powers of the angels.
May all who drink of it obtain purity of soul, spirit and body,
For the healing of all pains and the sanctification of homes, profitable unto all good things.
The remarkable feature of this epiclesis is that it asks that the water be filled with the power of the angels, so that it becomes A loosing from sins, a chaser away of diseases, and that all who drink of it may obtain purity of soul, spirit and body. Most significantly, that it may be for the sanctification of homes, a point we will return to later. The epiclesis resumes, still addressing the Son; “Sanctify this water by Thine Holy Spirit. And grant those who use it by any means, or those who touch it or drink it, or bathe in it, that it may be unto them purity and blessing and salvation.” This is significant because the water now has spiritual benefits; loosing from sins, and a means for purity and blessing and salvation, in addition to being a chaser away of diseases.
It is a custom among our people to drink of the Holy Water for the "purification of their souls and bodies and cure of their weakness." This custom is very ancient and came to us with the ritual itself. The taking of the Holy Water to their homes is to have in it a fount of continued blessings and protection against all evil.5
THE BLESSING OF HOMES:
Among the various petitions mentioned in the ceremony during the blessing of the water is the sanctification of homes. With this the Church imposes a duty and obligation upon the priests to bless the homes of the faithful entrusted to their pastoral care at the beginning of the New Year. Theologically speaking, the blessing of homes constitutes an invocative blessing, meaning that by his prayer and by the sprinkling of the Holy Water the priest invokes God’s protection upon the home and those living in it.6
It was the custom of the priests to visit the homes of the faithful to bless the homes and sprinkle the water sanctified on Epiphany, a custom still respected in the Eastern Orthodox churches. Unfortunately, in our church, this has been replaced by the priest going to the homes during Lent to perform a mutilated “anointing of the sick” as a means of blessing the houses of the faithful. How and when did this happen?
To understand this we have to go to the history of Lent. In the days before the council of Nicea Lent started right after Epiphany (in Egypt) It was after the council of Nicea which gave the Patriarch of Alexandria the sole right to determine and announce the date of Easter that St. Athanasius moved Lent to be forty days before Easter as was the custom of the church of Rome, as a gesture of unity among the churches in their observances. This can be understood if we study carefully the Paschal letters of Saint Athanasius, where we can discern this transition. For those interested in the details of this I refer to the doctoral thesis of Walker, Kenneth Donald Fraser from Durham university, which is available online. I think that the blessing of the houses by the priests after Epiphany became associated with Lent, which in the beginning started after Epiphany, so that when Lent was moved closer to Easter, the blessing of the houses moved with it, and the importance of this old tradition of blessing houses following Epiphany disappeared in our church. I personally started to revive this tradition of visiting the homes of my congregation after Epiphany and continued practising it until a few years ago when health considerations prevented me.
It is interesting that when St. Athanasius started this transition the forty days included the Holy week! This is very clear from studying the Paschal letters of Saint Athanasius. The same is true for the Paschal letters of Saint Theophilus and Saint Cyril, where the Holy week is part of the 40 days of Lent, which is what the church of Rome observes till now. How and when did Lent become 55 days? We abandoned following the Lenen tradition of the church of Rome and started following the Lenten tradition of the church of Jerusalem. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem’s catechetical lectures (died 386 AD) were delivered during Lent and he tells us at the beginning that they will go throughout the 55 days of Lent. One of them was even given after the long service of Great Friday and he apologized for the catechumens who were expected to attend the Holy Saturday vigil that started at midnight! I imagine that after the discovery of the Cross and the building of churches in Jerusalem by Queen Helen, Copts started visiting the Holy Land and they came back with the good news that Lent is actually 55 days and not 40!
THE WASHING OF FEET ON HOLY THURSDAY
This service is as old in the church as the blessing of the waters on Epiphany. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15) The church universal saw in this a commandment that had to be obeyed. It is practised in most Christian denominations on Holy Thursday. Although similar in structure to the service of blessing the water on Epiphany, yet there are some differences. The Anaphora is also addressed to the Son but the Epiclesis has no mention of blessing of houses. It is a service for washing of feet and not blessing of houses.
When we wash each others’ feet, may we be worthy to be in the inheritance of Thy Disciples. Cleanse our inner man through the fruit of this Mystery. And grant us the forgiveness of our sins, through the coming down upon us of Thine Holy Spirit, to cleanse our souls, bodies and spirits from all blemish of the flesh, all defilement and all sin.
THE LAKKAN OF THE FEAST OF THE APOSTLES
This is the least ancient and least authentic of the three Lakkan services. The service is attributed to Abba Peter, bishop of Behnesa (Pemdji), who lived during the second half of the 12th century. The title of the service reads:
A Canon set by our father Abba Peter, bishop of the city of Behnesa To be read on the Basin (Lakane) on the 5th of Epip: The feast of our fathers the Apostles Peter and Paul
It was Burmester7 who first drew attention to the fact that the service is composed by borrowing prayers from older services of the Coptic Church. The format follows the much older service of the washing of feet on Holy Thursday. The Litany is taken entirely from that service. The prayer “O Master, the Pantocrator, Lord of all, the Father of compassion and God of all comfort” and what follows is taken from the service for the Consecration of a Church, and is addressed to the Father.
The prayer “O Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son...” and what follows is taken from the service for the Consecration of a Baptistry and is addressed the Son. The Epiclesis is very short:
Fill it with Thine Holy Spirit.
Put in it the seal of salvation,
And the energy of Thine invisible power.
Fill it with the glory of Thy Divinity,
May it be a font of blessing,
A font of glory and honour unto Thine Holy Name.
The Epiclesis is presumably addressed to the Son since the preceding prayer is addressed to the Son and it starts with these words: “receive unto Thee our prayer over this font, and send down upon it the beams of Thy grace.” So this is the only epiclesis that asks the Lord to send down His grace rather than His Holy Sprit. Like the service of Holy Thursday it is a service of washing of feet and not for house blessing.
1Nicholas E. Denysenko. The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany Kindle Edition.
2Ibid. In old times Christmas and epiphany were celebrated together.
4Nicholas E. Denysenko. The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany Kindle Edition.
6Ibid. The epiclesis is the same as in the Byzantine rite
7Burmester, O. H. E. Two services of the Coptic Church: Museon 45, 1932