Being near the Feast of the Epiphany, the question arose as to some of the customs which surround this great feast. Specifically, the question was asked about the history of the blessing of water at the time of Epiphany. Accordingly, I turned once again to Fr. Francis X. Weiser, SJ, and the Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs.
Before we look at what Weiser has to say on the blessing of water on the Epiphany, it should be noted that, while we in the Latin rite tend to think of the Feast itself most particularly in connection with the Magi, the Feast of the Epiphany has multiple aspects, or manifestations, associated to it. This is captured by two antiphons within the Divine Office for Epiphany:
We celebrate a holy day adorned with three mysteries: this day the star led the Magi to the manger; this day wine was made from water at the wedding; this day Christ willed to be baptized in the Jordan by John in order to save us, alleluia. (Antiphon for the Magnificat, Second Vespers)
Today the Church hath been joined to her heavenly Spouse, for Christ hath washed away her sins in the Jordan; the Magi hasten with gifts to the royal nuptials, and the guests are gladdened with wine made from water, alleluia. (Antiphon for the Benedictus, Lauds)
As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes: “Owing no doubt to the vagueness of the name Epiphany, very different manifestations of Christ’s glory and Divinity were celebrated in this feast quite early in its history, especially the Baptism, the miracle at Cana, the Nativity, and the visit of the Magi.”
Indeed, the icon the Byzantines associate with the “Epiphany” is not an icon of the Magi at the manger — this rather appears within the icon of the Nativity — instead, the icon associated with this feast is that of the Baptism of Christ:
“The festival of the Baptism is also called Epiphany, since Baptism is the manifestation of the Divinity of Christ…” (Leonid Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons, p. 164)
With these various aspects borne in mind then, let us return to Fr. Weiser:
SOLEMN BLESSING OF WATER – With the commemoration of Christ’s baptism there was associated in the Orient from ancient times not only the custom of blessing baptismal water in the churches but also of solemnly blessing a nearby river or fountain in honor of the Lord’s baptism. In Palestine it was the Jordan, of course, that received this blessing in a most colorful and solemn ceremony. Thousands of pilgrims would gather on its shores to step into the water after the rite, submerging three times to obtain the great blessing. In Egypt the Nile was thus blessed for many centuries…
In the cities of East Rome [Byzantium], Epiphany water was blessed in the church and given to the people to take home. Saint John Chrysostom claimed that this water was known to stay fresh through the whole year and even longer.
The Russians and other Slavs of the Greek Rite [Byzantine rite] observe the “blessing of water” on the twenty-fifth day after Easter (always a Wednesday) which they call “Mid-Pentecost.” Priests and people walk in procession to a well or river, the water is solemnly blessed, and the faithful fetch a good supply to keep during the year.
In the Latin Church this blessing of water was introduced in the fifteenth century. The present rite of solemn blessing is to be performed on the vigil of Epiphany. The prayers, replacing older formulas, date from the year 1890. After the texts of the blessing the Roman Ritual gives the following instruction: “This blessed water should be distributed to the faithful, to be devoutly used by them in their homes, and also for the sick ones.”
In short, the blessing of water on the Feast of the Epiphany is a custom found within both the Eastern and Western church, presumably — as Weiser suggests — associated with the baptism of the Lord.
While we are discussing Epiphany traditions, let us continue on with some others:
PROCLAMATION OF FEASTS – One of the special traditions connected with Epiphany was the publication on January 6 of the annual letter of the patriarch of Alexandria announcing the date of Easter for the current year (epistola festalis). The scholars of Alexandria were considered most competent to make the difficult computations and observations necessary to determine this date, and thus the whole East followed their findings, which were sent to all churches by the patriarch. In the sixth century, the fourth Council of Orleans (541) ordered the same procedure in the West. During the Middle Ages the dates of other movable feasts used to be added to the date of Easter and be solemnly read to the people on Epiphany Day. This ancient custom is still observed in some cathedrals as a traditional solemnity on January 6 at the end of pontifical Mass.
Those who watch the Mass of the Epiphany celebrated this Wednesday, January 6th by the Holy Father in St. Peter’s Basilica will hear this proclamation chanted. Therein the dates will be announced for the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday), Easter Sunday, the Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi and the beginning of Advent.
Another custom associated with the Feast of the Epiphany is the blessing of homes.
BLESSING OF HOMES – The Roman ritual also provides a beautiful and impressive rite of blessing the homes of the faithful on the Feast of the Epiphany. This blessing is usually given by the pastor. After reciting the Magnificat, the priest sprinkles the rooms with holy water and incenses them, then recites the prayers… After the blessing the initials of the legendary names of the Magi — Gaspar, Melchior Baltasar — are written with white chalk on the inside of the door, framed by the number of the year, and all symbols are connected by the cross: 19+G+M+B+__. To sanctify even the chalk for this writing, there is a special “Blessing of Chalk on the Feast of the Epiphany” in the ritual.