Orthodox take plunge at feast of Theophany

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The day was unseasonably warm and the sun was shining as parishioners from St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church in Seaford joined those from Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in East Meadow and St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Dix Hills for the annual blessing of the waters at the Great South Bay in honor of the feast of Theophany on Jan. 6.

The parishes were represented by Rev. Andrew Gromm, of St. Gregory; Rev. Martin Kraus, of Holy Trinity; and Rev. John Klingel, of St. Andrew. The three priests were joined by His Eminence Archbishop Michael Dahulich, of the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of New York and New Jersey, and Deacon Stephan Karlgut of St. Athanasius Chapel in Bronxville.

The festival, also known as Epiphany, commemorates the baptism of Christ, as described in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Orthodox Christians traditionally gather near local bodies of water for a plunge as a festive re-enactment of the baptismal rite. It is the culmination of the 12 days of Christmas and officially ends the Nativity season

The feast also commemorates the Trinity of Christian teaching. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, God recognized Jesus by speaking from heaven, saying “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit then appeared in the form of a dove, “confirming the truthfulness of His word,” in the words of the choral refrain sung throughout the service.

As part of the observance, a wooden cross was thrown into the bay three times. After the first two tosses, children from the parishes pulled the cross back by a string. The third time it was thrown, the hardier of those present dove in and race to retrieve it. As in years past, local emergency medical technician and Holy Trinity parishioner Guram Abashivili braved the waters, which were frigid despite the 50-degree weather, and brought back the cross.

“I don’t know,” Archbishop Michael said when asked the origin of the seasonal swim but added that it is very popular, even in countries at far northern latitudes. “The Russians love it,” he said. “They cut holes in the ice and jump in. Even [Russian President Vladimir] Putin goes in.”

Babies begin life submerged in the waters of their mothers’ wombs, Archbishop Michael explained, speaking of the relationship between water and human life. “And we’re born again in the waters of baptism.”

The fifth-century bishop St. Augustine of Hippo struggled with what Archbishop Michael referred to as the mystery of the Trinity. “Then, he had a vision of

the ocean,” the archbishop said. “It is endless and unknowable. We just have to give in to it.”