Children of the Odegitria: Italy’s Byzantine Catholics
by Rev. Romanos V. Russo
It is January 6, the day that Byzantine Rite Christians call the Theophany, which means Manifestation of God. Unlike the West, which commemorates the revelation of the Christ Child to the Magi on this day, the East celebrates the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by St. John. This day is called Manifestation of God because
When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed: for the Fathers voice bore witness to You, calling You Beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the steadfastness of His word.
The East loves this day perhaps even more than Christmas. By being baptized, Jesus sanctified the nature of water. Water symbolizes life; if Jesus hallows water, then all of creation has begun its upward ascent to restoration. To mark this drama of cosmic redemption, Easterners walk in procession to a fountain, river, lake, or ocean, where they symbolically reenact the Baptism of Jesus. In a sense, they also recommit themselves to the task of their own baptism: the work of their salvation and the salvation of the whole world.
The cross leads the procession, flanked by two candle-bearers. The servers follow in the brilliant robes known as stikharia; they accompany the deacon, who carries the smoking censer. The priest, wearing a damask vestment called the phelonion, bears aloft the jeweled hand-cross. The entire parish family follows him.
The head of each household carries a small jug which he will fill with the Jordan water. He will sanctify his home by sprinkling the water, and his family by giving it to them to drink. The womenfolk don their festive holy-day dresses with characteristic silver-embossed belt buckles, many of which have an icon of St. George in the center.
The deacon intones the great litany, to which the people harmoniously respond with the two-thousand-year-old chant of Kyrie eleison. After the great consecratory prayer of St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, the climactic moment arrives. The priest immerses the handcross three times in the Jordan. When the chanting people come to the words, and the Spirit in the form of a dove
, the elder of the community releases a pure white dove from its cage, to the squealing delight of the children both young and old!
With great reverence, each person steps forward to kiss the hand-cross and to be blessed with the Jordan water by the priest. The families fill their vessels with the water and piously drink it, saving an ample supply for the entire year to be drunk in time of temptation, illness, or strife. Later, the priest and deacon will visit each home to bestow the blessing of the Jordan-the grace of regeneration-on each household.
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Tags: Church history Italy Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church