PAUL CHAPLIN, The Patriot-NewsAfter blessing the Susquehanna River, Father Stephen Vernak of Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Harrisburg offers a final blessing.
They sang, read Scripture and prayed for everything from the clergy to the country. They asked God to “send down the blessing of Jordan and sanctify these waters.”
Then, they blessed the river, made the sign of the cross and tossed a large ice cross made from frozen holy water into the Susquehanna River.
The annual Great Blessing of the Waters, held on City Island as part of the Orthodox Theophany celebration, unites area Orthodox of many traditions. Theophany celebrates the revelation of the Holy Trinity to the world through John the Baptist’s baptizing Jesus Christ in the Jordan River.
Sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Churches of Greater Harrisburg, the ceremony dating back to the earliest days of Christianity keeps alive a rich Orthodox tradition.
“We have many ethnic flavors,” said the Rev. Timothy Hojnicki, pastor of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church of Mechanicsburg. “But we have one Orthodox faith. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, he sanctified the water by going into it.
“We throw an ice cross into the river to reclaim nature for God.”
Nearly 200 people braved the frigid temperatures to attend the service presided over by Vernak, pastor of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church of Lower Paxton Twp.
“It wouldn’t be the same without being freezing cold,” said John Minarich of Camp Hill. “I like being part of an ancient service like this.”
Paula Werner of Swatara Township, a member of St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church of Swatara Township, said she and her sister brought their children to the service because “It’s part of our Orthodox belief about the baptism of Christ.”
The crowd processed solemnly to the river behind priests wearing gold brocade vestments and carrying brocade liturgical banners depicting the Blessed Mother and Saints Luke, Thomas, Philip, Peter, Mark and Paul.
Barbara Linnehan, Holy Apostles choir director, led a combined choir for the service, which included sung prayers, responses and hymns written by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem in the mid-seventh century.
After three Old Testament readings and one New Testament reading, the priests prayed for many intentions before the river blessing and cross tossing. The faithful then came forward to kiss an Orthodox cross and be blessed with holy water.
The Very Rev. Daniel D. Ressetar, pastor emeritus of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church, said local Orthodox have been collaborating since the late l950s “in order to get better acquainted and to have study periods and scheduled lectures about the Orthodox Christian faith led by the pastors.”
He said the movement fell off until the mid-1960s, then was revived. Later, the churches came together again with about 75 people joining a Pan-Orthodox Mixed Choir that Ressetar organized.
“Today, the Orthodox Council of Churches of Greater Harrisburg has a weekly Bible study every Wednesday at noon downtown,” Ressetar said.
Area Orthodox churches also join together on the first Sunday of Great Lent for Pan-Orthodox vespers. This year, the vespers will be held at 4 p.m. March 4 in St. Michael’s Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church in Saint Clair.
In 2009, the five area Orthodox churches formed the Orthodox Christian Charities of Greater Harrisburg Inc., a nonprofit organization comprised of clergy and members from the churches.
The council sponsors the Agia Sophia Coffee House and Bookstore at 225 Market St., Harrisburg, and donates the profits to area charities.