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On a cold January day, while sledders hooted and geese pecked for food in the ice, 35 Orthodox Christians re-enacted an ancient service along Parleys Creek in Sugar House Park.
The group 10 of them children gathered Thursday on the Feast of Theophany (known as Epiphany by Western Christians) for the blessing of the waters.
Theophany is the 12th day of Christmas and commemorates Jesus Christ's revelation as God. While some Christians emphasize the three wise men reaching the Christ child, Orthodox Christians remember his baptism in the Jordan River and God's revelation that Jesus was his son.
"What we do has meaning," said the Rev. Justin Havens, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Salt Lake City, as he stood at the edge of the stream before a white-lace-covered table holding a large silver bowl of holy water rimmed with beeswax candles. "Everything we do in the church is theology lived out."
Members of Salt Lake Valley's Greek Orthodox community also joined the blessing of the waters.
Havens and Greek Orthodox Rev. Elias Koucos chanted prayers and read from the Gospel of Mark before blessing a small wooden cross with holy water. When they tossed the cross into the stream, five children wearing boots waded into the frigid water to retrieve the cross.
"Whoever gets it has to kiss it and give it to the other kids to kiss," Havens told the children, including his own.
The blessing of the waters tradition dates to the fourth century, Koucos said.
In many countries, the Orthodox have processions to bodies of water, Havens said, and young men dive into the water to retrieve the cross.
"It's not like Greece," Havens said as the children stomped their wet feet. "It's a little colder here."
Rade Milenkovic and Mila Ishkhanyan said the blessing reminded them of their youths in Serbia and Russia, respectively.
"I remember in my country, when I was little, doing this," said Milenkovic, who came to Salt Lake City 16 years ago.
Bountiful resident Julie Fotes says she takes off work each year for the ceremony. "The feasts of our church help us to remember Christ all year long."
Mary Yannias' parents were both immigrants from Greece, and she remembers how Theophany was celebrated in her home. "We would always get up and drink the holy water," she said. "The water was always part of it."
In coming weeks, Orthodox priests will visit homes to bless them with holy water, another tradition.