SALT LAKE CITY — Live your religion.
That was the message of one priest to a mix of more than 60 local Orthodox Christian parishioners during a feast of the Epiphany service late Wednesday afternoon.
The priests wore vestments. Two candles were lit next to a gilded Bible. A golden staff with a golden cross attached at the top was used during the service.
But these items, while beautiful, wouldn't lead to salvation by themselves, said the Rev. Father Justin Havens of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Salt Lake during the Out-of-Door Great Sanctification of Water service held on Epiphany.
"These are all beautiful things but they’re not going to save us. They’re external manifestations of beauty and what it means to be a changed person and the God who comes to sanctify all of us," he said to those gathered.
The feast of the Epiphany, meaning revelation or manifestation, is also known to Orthodox Christians as theophany, which means the manifestation of God. It is also referred to as "the feast of lights," celebrating the light Jesus brought into the world.
In the ancient Orthodox Church, the feast of the Epiphany began as a way to commemorate God coming to the world as Jesus Christ, the second person in the Holy Trinity, and was a combined celebration with Christmas.
During this time, those who had been learning or preparing for baptism — called Catechumens — were baptized the night before Epiphany, so that on Epiphany, they could fully participate in communion.
Now, the Epiphany marks either Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River or the Three Wise Men's visit to the baby Jesus, depending on the beliefs of the faith tradition. It falls on the 12th day of Christmas, or Jan. 6, although some traditions observe Epiphany on other days in January.
Many Orthodox Christians celebrate what they see as God's revelation of the Holy Trinity — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.
"God created everything good and perfect and so we’re returning to his creation to sanctify it because he sanctified the waters by his entering into it — specifically the Jordan River," said Peter Samore, morning reporter for KSL NewsRadio and Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Salt Lake subdeacon.
Although there are many water blessing ceremonies throughout the year, Epiphany is the most meaningful to Orthodox Christians.
"Any sanctification of water even our own baptisms, stems from this service," said Rev. Father Anthony Savas of the Greek Orthodox Mission Parish of Utah.
Most Orthodox Christians will hold outdoor sanctification of water services during Epiphany, and all have indoor water blessing services. During this service, bottles and containers of water are blessed for use in churches, homes and in everyday life. Members take bottles home with them for their personal use. During the coming months, the local priests will visit the homes of all the parishioners and bless them with the holy water.
Havens and Savas were joined at the outdoor service Wednesday by Rev. Father Elias Koucos of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church and Rev. Father Justin Mahfouz of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Salt Lake.
Some of the boy parishioners sneaked snowballs into the nearby Parley's Creek while the others gathered sang or chanted when their turn came.
"All-holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy Name's sake. Lord have mercy," all chanted in unison during part of the service.
The parishioners watched as one by one, the priests raised a long pole with a gold cross attached at the top and lowered the tip, tracing the shape of a cross in the running water.
Bundles of branches — one made of live and one of dried branches — were later used to sprinkle blessed water on people's heads.
Rev. Havens encouraged those gathered to become sanctified and make a "concrete change" in their lives.
"Make room for (God) in your heart," he said.
He encouraged them to seek forgiveness from those they'd wronged, help the poor, pray daily, attend church more, serve and love more.
“If we live this way, it will be a true Epiphany. ... (The world is) desperate for the good news of Christ we are great inheritors of this great and holy truth," he said. "So please, the best we can do is live the holy theophany, an Epiphany of a life, that the world around us, which is desperate, can find salvation.”