In most parts of Canada, January isn’t the greatest time to hang out by open water. It’s cold, it’s windy, and if you stand still too long, your face will freeze.
Yet it’s worth the discomfort if you’re there for divine purposes. Such was the case for some Indigenous Anglicans who this year picked up the Eastern Orthodox tradition of the Great Blessing of Water. The outdoor event happens on or close to Jan. 19, the feast of Christ’s baptism known as “Theophany.”
The adaptation was led by National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, who held two chilly services: one in Kingfisher Lake, Ont., and one in Toronto.
“The blessing of the water is a way of saying that the land is sacred and what happens in it is a sacred matter,” said Bishop MacDonald.
When he served as bishop of Alaska Bishop MacDonald heard how this blessing resonated among Indigenous Orthodox. Church communities would trek out to rivers, lakes, and the ocean for special services, often bringing back water in bottles to bless homes.
At the time Bishop MacDonald was having his own experiences with outdoor winter liturgies, usually presiding at funerals, where men would spend hours digging graves through permafrost.
Now in his role as pastoral head to Indigenous Anglicans across Canada, a position he’s held since 2007, Bishop MacDonald decided this year to try the tradition. He adapted an Orthodox blessing service and sent it out to his network across North America.
The Anglicans of Kingfisher Lake in northern Ontario were especially keen so Bishop MacDonald travelled north—450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay—on Jan. 18 to be with them.
The service began inside a cozy local radio station, where the liturgy was broadcast to the community of 400 by several bishops—Bishop MacDonald, Archbishop David Ashdown of Keewatin, and Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, area bishop of Northern Ontario.
Then they bundled up for the -40 weather and trekked out on the frozen lake with 20 others—everyone in snow pants, parkas, and fur-lined mittens. A local man had hacked a square to the fresh water and kept scraping with a shovel to keep the ice at bay.
“Blessed be God forever,” said the gathered. Then they dipped a wooden cross into the lake three times to symbolize Christ’s baptism. It came up coated in ice.
After two days and several flights—one delayed due to extreme cold—Bishop MacDonald stood on a west Toronto beach with the Rev. Andrew Wesley, a Cree priest in the Diocese of Toronto. It was cold for the city, about -15, though both men kept their hands and heads bare. To their left was the CN Tower and to their right, a cluster of lakeshore condos. A couple of dog walkers strolled past while the men read the Bible, sang, and prayed loudly over Lake Ontario. Mr. Wesley sprinkled tobacco on the ice as a sign of gratitude.
“Everything that was created by God has a spirit, even water,” said Mr. Wesley after the service. “That’s why it’s so important that we have to acknowledge things that were given by the Creator.”
The tradition of the Great Blessing syncs well with Indigenous cultures where the sacredness of water is acknowledged in different ways. In Mr. Wesley’s Omushkego Cree community near James Bay there is a special prayer before fishing or boating.
Bishop MacDonald, who has also served as Bishop of Navajoland, said that many Navajos say a blessing when they pass open water.
The Orthodox tradition also acknowledges the inherent sacredness of the water. Some Orthodox theologians interpret Jesus’s baptism as a moment when Jesus also baptized the waters. It is not that Jesus cleansed the water; he released something holy that was already there.
The Great Blessing of Water has started out small this year in Canadian Anglican communities, but Bishop MacDonald is confident the practice will catch on.
There is potential for these blessings to tie in more environmental activism. A 2011 service in Nondalton, Alaska, also served as a way to raise awareness about pollution from the nearby Pebble Mine.
Meanwhile, Anglicans are gradually learning about the liturgy, now available online. For next year Bishop Mamawka will translate the service into Oji-Cree for her ministers to use. Anglicans as far away as Santa Fe have already experimented with the liturgy.
Within Canada, however, the service certainly offers the novelty of bringing church language out into a wintry creation. Bishop MacDonald approaches it with a sense of delight.
“It was a big hit,” said Bishop MacDonald after the Kingfisher blessing. “We all had goosebumps but we didn’t know if it was the Spirit or the weather.”
o Download the liturgy for “A Blessing of the Waters,” an adaptation of the Orthodox tradition by National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald
o View a photo gallery of highlights from the Kingfisher Lake and Toronto blessings.
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