The river moves along, ever changing, ever seeking the path it will follow to its natural destination, a metaphor for us that nothing in life is static, especially our spiritual journey to God.
Photo Slide Show below
Why We Bless Water
Water. A gift of God’s creation. Without it life cannot exist. In so many ways. And yet, who can fully comprehend that this most basic resource we take for granted is also the most important means for the purification of our souls and new life? As Christians, this is what we believe in the sacrament of baptism.
Jesus Christ’s first act of ministry among us was submitting to the will of the Father with his baptism in the River Jordan. We too, are reminded that when we are baptized “into Christ” we enter into the life of Christ. We are called to live as children of God in the will of “Our Father”.
The waters sanctified are our waters of baptism. Each year we commemorate this timeless act when we celebrate the Great Feast of Theophany on January 6. Following Divine Liturgy on this holy day, priests in Byzantine churches bless holy water in the traditional rites of the early church. Water is blessed on the Vigil and the Feast Day.
In the historical tradition of Theophany, it is customary for Eastern Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox) to also bless the waters of nearby local streams or rivers. The prayer service follows the same prayers as those recited and chanted in church.
Blessing of Our River: The Susquehanna
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. In the Wyoming Valley (of Northeastern Pennsylvania) the nearest river is the Susquehanna river, designated a heritage river — an old river curving down from Cooperstown, New York State to the Maryland Chesapeake bay. Everyone living along the Susquehanna knows personally its beauty and fury. Many live and work in this flood plain, the lowest strip of land sandwiched between the low mountains of the Appalachian ridge.
In June 1972 a disastrous flood severely damaged thousands of homes and businesses, requiring improvements to the protective levee along several of the “valley” towns. Another flood in September 2011 was higher, and while the majority, but not all residents and places were spared, this latest flood once more tested the endurance of the levee system and in turn, the faith and resilience of the residents of the Wyoming Valley.
Residing nearby or in sight of “our river” is in reality, a love-respect relationship. The beauty of the river is visible from several vantage points, among them the views from the towns of Pittston and West Pittston, from the bridge in the borough of Wyoming, and further south in the cities of Wilkes-Barre and Kingston. A view may even include spotting a bald eagle gliding low along the river edge, or circling just yards above a busy road.
Foundations in Scripture and Tradition
Water is referenced in the bible multiple times from Genesis to Revelation. Christ refers to the graces received in the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of baptism, as “living water” (John 4:1-26; and John 7:37-38). And it is this connection between water, baptism, our belief in the Holy Trinity and the promises of God, that makes the Feast of Theophany so especially important. The early Christians valued all that was taught directly by Christ and his apostles and passed along these teachings in the early centuries in the development of the Church. These developed into the beliefs and traditions we continue with to this day. Both Scripture and Tradition are the means upon which the foundation of the Church was established. This applies to Catholic and Orthodox Churches, both of which have apostolic succession.
Respectively, we find stability in our faith and value in renewing many of the ethnic traditions of our ancestors that are intertwined with the tenets of our religious beliefs. Our traditions are expressed and preserved in broadly cultural forms as well as within our individual families. Meaningful traditions are those rooted in faith and rich in illuminating our beliefs through prayers, words, hymns or symbolism.
The river blessing is a renewal of a tradition formed in our faith that connects us to our community and our reliance on the mercy of God.
Annual Blessing Continues
Over the years, our Wyoming Valley Byzantine Catholic faithful of five different parishes have braved rain and snow, icy wind and cold, and other inconveniences to ensure the blessing of the river happens. 2017 marked the 14th year of this event. In earlier years, the participants would walk along northern sidewalk of the Pierce Street (Veterans Memorial) bridge connecting Kingston and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The prayers and blessing of the river service would then take place from the center point of the bridge.
A few years ago, the service was moved to Nesbitt Park, a small boat launch area on the river bank. This made it more convenient and much safer for everyone wishing to attend. Our local towns have created river parks like Nesbitt Park in the flood plain for the preservation of natural resources, educational and recreational use. The easy access to the river park makes it an good place for a river blessing. An entrance road from Kingston crests over the dike to a large parking area near the historic Market Street bridge. This is where the Byzantine Churches faithful of Wyoming Valley have gathered and hope to continue with the river blessing. The tradition is one of acknowledging all God has created.
Our hope also is that more local residents will join in the prayer service each year. We invite all in our community to be witnesses and participants regardless of faith origin or practice. We pray for all. We are a community and together we seek God’s grace and guidance.
2017 marked the 14th year of this event for the Byzantine Catholic Churches of Wyoming Valley. The photos below are a collage of the blessing.
¹ The five Wyoming Valley Byzantine Catholic Churches include:
St. Mary Protection (Pokrova), Kingston
St. Michael the Archangel, Pittston
St. Nicholas of Myra, Swoyersville
St. Mary’s, Wilkes-Barre
St. John the Baptist, Wilkes-Barre Township
As good stewards of the earth, we respect water as a gift from God and realize our dependence upon this vital natural resource for sustaining all life. We pray for all who reside and work in Wyoming Valley and along the Susquehanna. We pray for their protection, and for right use of our natural resources. In gratitude and humility, we bless the water that binds us together as a community.
“Great are You O Lord + and wonderful are your works,
No words can do justice to the praise of your wonders.”
– words recited by the priest in the blessing of water –
Photography credits: © 2017 Mary Anne Fedor. All rights reserved.