Theophany, Epiphany or the Festival of Lights as it is also known, celebrates the three aspects of the Holy Trinity and the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, an event Christians identify as repentance and the appearance of God on earth.
This festival is celebrated with great joy throughout the eastern Church and is marked by age-old religious rites and rituals, which take place both within and outside the churches, but always close to water – by the open sea, lakes, harbours, in urban cisterns or by the running waters of mountain rivers and streams.
Two of the most important of these rituals are the blessing of the Holy Water inside the church and the Blessing of the Waters and the immersion of the ‘True Cross’ outside it, in an event attended by all religious and political leaders.
In most regions of the country people of all ages (usually men and boys, but occasionally girls as well) dive into the freezing cold waters after the holy cross is thrown in by a priest. The one who retrieves it is considered to have gained good luck for the rest of the year. In some rural villages, the lucky person carries the cross through the town from house to house, giving and receiving blessings along the way.
Theophany in Athens and Piraeus
The most impressive celebration of Theophany takes place at the largest harbour in Greece, Piraeus, in front of the Church of St. Spyridon. The Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece presides, accompanied by the Bishop of Piraeus, the city’s Mayor and thousands of priests, politicians and the civilian faithful, who throng the crowded piers of the harbour or watch from boats floating nearby.
The moment the cross hits the water, all the boats in the harbour sound their sirens and bells, and this joyful sound carries for miles. If you want to witness this celebration, find a place on the pier around 10 a.m. The plunge for the cross takes place at around 11 a.m.
In Athens, the Blessing of the Waters takes place in the Kolonaki neighbourhood, at Dexameni (The Old Cistern) at the foot of Mt. Lycabettus and at a swimming pool of the National Gymnastics Association (6 Vas. Olgas Street).
These two events are held about an hour apart, so with a little careful planning (and a very pleasant walk), one could attend both. The Church service for the Theophany in Athens is held at the Church of St. Dionysios Areopagus. For the Athens celebration of the Blessing of the Waters, it is best to be at Dexameni Square by 10 a.m.