Newhalen celebrates the Great Blessing of Water at Theophany

In the first days of the new year, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the Theophany – the Great Blessing of Water. In Newhalen, the community gathers at the river that flows into Lake Iliamna: Nanvarpak in Yup’ik and Nila Vena in Dena’ina.

Walking towards the Newhalen Russian Orthodox Church, you can hear the faint sound of chanting. Rings a bell. A small congregation gathers inside, where the air smells of incense.

It is January 19, the Russian Orthodox holiday of Theophany, also called Epiphany, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River.

After the service, people pour out of the church and jump on four-wheelers and cars to drive to the Newhalen River.

A cross has been cut into the ice along the river bank and is filled from below with water. The wind blows and people sing hymns. When the water has been blessed, one of the priests uses a cup to fill nearby pitchers. Father David Askoak takes an aspergillum, a brush used for holy water, dips it into one of the bowls and sprinkles the water over the crowd.

After the ceremony, several people head to Askoak’s house for a celebratory meal.

The house fills with the smell of French toast, bacon, and coffee. On the kitchen table is a tray full of strips of dried salmon – real salmon from family and friends in the Nushagak. A stack of well-worn ulu knives sits on the windowsill, and a richly decorated altar fills one corner of the room.

Askoak has lived in Newhalen for 40 years. He grew up in the town of Russian Mission, on the Yukon River.

“When we grew up, we always had holy water. It was a sign of God’s blessing,” she said. “Whenever you are sick, when you need it, bring holy water, saying a prayer. When God created the world, we heard that the Spirit of God moved over the waters and created everything and everything that he saw in the beginning was good. So when Christ came, he regenerated and recreated the world through him, making everything good again, the way it’s supposed to be.”

Father Thomas Andrew is the chancellor of the Diocese of Alaska. He grew up in the neighboring town of Marshall.

“When we were children, we had seen our elderly priests, in the 1960s, go down to the river in the Yukon at the Russian Mission at 40. [degrees] beneath. And he’s ccc-cold,” he said, laughing.

Andrew said that Theophany means ‘God revealed’. Water is a basic necessity in life, which makes vacations even more important.

“To bless your homes, to bless your vehicles. Every time we have some kind of spiritual problem like, for example, I don’t know, we can’t sleep or something bothers us spiritually, we bless ourselves with holy water or drink a little. And it leads us to bless many things. It is really for the well-being of the family or the individual. And the demons are afraid of him, ”he said, laughing again.

Blessing the water has deep meaning throughout the year, according to Andrew.

“The blessing of homes is to claim the dominion of Christ because in our lives as well, we as believers in Christ also believe that we live with Christ beginning in this world and extending to the world to come, the life to come,” he said. .

The holidays are a time to reset and reflect on how water reveals life, according to Andrew. In the house, people gather around the table, ready to enjoy the feast that is presented to them. Before sitting down to eat, they pray.

Contact the author at [email protected] or 907-842-2200.