Orthodox Epiphany consecrates water for use throughout the year
There’s a small choir loft inside the St. Sophia Russian Orthodox Church where two people are standing and singing.
The contrasting vocals of the soprano and tenor duet radiate and descend from the loft, filling the space with a harmonizing blend that is, according to the Orthodox church, one of the forms of worship itself: liturgical singing.
From the choir loft, the vocal duet has a full view of the church's center, better known as the nave, where the light from a January mid-morning sunrise reflects off the wooden floors and collides with the smoking incense wafting from the priest’s censer.
There are two empty benches and a dozen chairs half-full of devotees. They oscillate between sitting, standing, and kneeling, depending on the scripture throughout the liturgy. Fr. Michael Trefon Jr. is unfazed by the small crowd.
“We say prayers, asking God to sanctify the water where he was baptized in the River Jordan by John. This is also the day that was revealed to us the Trinity, where Jesus Christ went into the water, and then the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. And then there was a voice coming from the Gospel of Matthew, 'this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.' That’s the first time that we, within the gospel context, hear the Trinity,” Trefon Jr. said.
Construction started in 2009 and finally finished in 2011 when the church altar was consecrated. Building it took an all-volunteer effort from other religious congregations and nearby villages. According to longtime parishioner Ana Hoffman, local organizations donated equipment and materials. The large chandelier hanging from the nave’s center was shipped from Greece, and was paid for by Bethel’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10041.
St. Sophia's is traditional in the sense that it’s oblong and oriented east to west, with the main entrance, or narthex, of the building at the west end. Trefon Jr. said that this symbolizes the entrance of the worshiper from the darkness of sin (the west) into the light of truth (the east).
There are also several podiums, or analogions, Trefon Jr. explained.
“So there’s three of them. In the middle of the nave is the center analogion where we have the patron saint of the church, St. Sophia. But on great feast days, like today, we put the icon of Theophany there in the center.”
Four more podiums border the sanctuary.
“These other two, on the right hand side, we have Christ on the right side. And then we have his mother Mary, the Theotokos, on the left to where we can venerate the icons,” Trefon Jr. said.
One of the podiums is to venerate St. Herman, who Trefon Jr. said is one of the first Russian missionaries to come to Alaska, around the 17th or 18th century. But the last podium has regional significance.
“This is mother Olga who hopefully, God willing, will be glorified here pretty soon in the near future," said Trefon Jr.
He’s talking about St. Olga of Kwethluk who, on Nov. 9, 2023, was selected to be the first female saint in North America, and the first-ever Yup’ik saint.
Next to the center podium there’s also a 25-gallon container filled with water, blessed by Trefon Jr.
“The blessings of the waters, it goes back to the baptism. We are asking God to sanctify the waters by sending down the Holy Spirit, like we heard in the Gospel of St. Matthew where the Holy Spirit descended down onto Christ like a dove. So the whole meaning of it is asking that we ask God to crush all the evil things that are in the water, you know, and to sanctify it with his presence,” Trefon Jr. said.
Typically this ceremony is held outdoors on the Kuskokwim River where someone chainsaws into the thick ice and carves the Russian Orthodox cross. But after consulting Bethel Search and Rescue, Trefon Jr. said that he concluded that the river conditions weren’t safe enough for the ceremony on ice.
After he blessed the water, Trefon Jr. used an aspergillum, or a whisk.
“It’s made of grass. It’s just a sprinkler. To kind of collect, you know, like a paintbrush, to, you know, help distribute water throughout. I could use a squirt gun, but, you know, that’s not funny,” Trefon Jr. said.
After the liturgy, parishioners filled their mason jars, empty soda bottles, jugs, anything that could contain the blessed water.
“They take them home. They take it with medicine. They take it when they're not feeling well. They take it whenever they want to. It's, you know, it's holy. Holy water. Sanctified,” Trefon Jr. said.
Trefon Jr. said that holy water is a big reason why Theophany is so special. Not because it’s the only day to make holy water, but it’s the day to make holy water.
“You know, just like the Yup'ik people of the culture in this area. When we go hunting, we don't just take the meat from the moose. We just don't take the meat, we take the guts, the tongue, the head, all the works, and we take it into our homes. We have water. We have candles that we burn, and incense that we burn in the church and also in our house. The church itself is a main example of how our house should be at home and our personal home. And so then taking water is a good thing. It helps them,” Trefon Jr. said.