Did you take part in any Polar Bear Plunge on Jan. 1?
Some members of the Russian Orthodox Church, both here and in Europe, will take part in a type of polar plunge to mark the feast of the Baptism of the Lord this month. Orthodox churches celebrate the Lord’s Baptism as part of their Epiphany celebration and this year these will fall on Jan. 19. Catholics in the West usually celebrate the Lord’s baptism on the Sunday after Epiphany, which means the feast falls on Jan. 13 this year.
The Russian custom is to cut a large, cross-shaped hole in the ice of a lake or pond and then plunge into it. It’s a fairly recent custom, popularized in the last 30 years or so. However, the making of a cross from blocks of ice and using the melt of the ice for holy water is a more ancient practice followed by the Byzantine Catholics. This is especially true in Ukraine. Their custom is to make a cross out of ice blocks cut from rivers and lakes. The ice cross is blessed and sometimes dyed red to symbolize the Holy Spirit. The resulting ice water is also blessed and taken home by the faithful to use during the next year.
Both customs are based on a common Christian belief that, because Christ was baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, all waters around the world are made holy on this special day.
Originally, both in the East and the West, the feast of the Epiphany (called “Theophany” in Eastern churches) celebrated three major events in Jesus’ life: the visit of the Magi; his baptism by John; and the wedding feast at Cana. In the West, the three events are now celebrated separately. (The wedding at Cana will be the Gospel reading for Jan. 20, what used to be called the second Sunday after Epiphany and is now the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time.)
Christmas officially ends
The Baptism of the Lord marks the official end of the Western church’s liturgical Christmas season — that is why Christmas decorations remain present in churches until Jan. 13 this year. Before 1955, the Christmas season lasted until Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. On that date (still the end of Christmastide), we will again hear from Luke’s Gospel about the infant Jesus.
Before 1955, the Lord’s baptism was part of the Octave of Epiphany and called a “commemoration. This meant meant it was not a full feast day. In 1955, many of the octave celebrations of the church were suppressed by the Sacred Congregation of Rites under Pope Pius XII. Today, there are only three octaves (eight-day celebrations) in the church: Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.
After the reform of the liturgy, following Vatican II, the Baptism of the Lord became its own feast day in the Western church. Since Jesus’ baptism is considered the beginning of his public ministry. The feast offers a wonderful bridge between the stories of his infancy and childhood (what are sometimes called the “hidden years”) and his public life as an adult.
The Baptism of the Lord is also the time when the Trinity first becomes manifest in the Gospel readings. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all present at the event at the Jordan River in all four Gospel accounts. This is why the Eastern churches use the term “Theophany” when speaking of this event, because “Theophany” translates as “God” (theo), and “reveal” or “come into view” (phainein). So this emphasizes how the full revelation of the Trinity bursts onto the scene at Jesus’ baptism. From that time on, Jesus continued to reveal the Father and the Spirit in whatever he did and said.
Also, with his own baptism — the immersion in water foreshadowing his death, burial, resurrection and ascension — Jesus instituted the sacrament of baptism. No doubt, this also played a role in the tradition instituted by St. John Paul II in 1979. Since then, the pope baptizes babies on this feast day. (But the pope doesn’t use ice water.)
Sources: ewtn.org; catholic.org; Catholic News Agency; the Orthodox Church in America at oca.org; vatican.va; servantsoftheword.org; The Catechism of the Catholic Church; The New Dictionary of Theology; The Collegeville Biblical Commentary; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; An Introduction to the New Testament; The Merriam-Webster Dictionary; An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon; A Greek English Lexicon; ukrainianpeople.us; theshrine.org; and orthodoxchristian.com