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Holy Hudson! The Blessing of the Waters in Hudson River Park

By Fr Graeme Napier

The ancient tradition of blessing rivers, bays, coves, and other waterways returns once more to the West Village after a hiatus caused by the pandemic.

In the Christian calendar the Epiphany of Our Lord (6 January) is followed by the Sunday known as The Baptism of Christ. On that Sunday morning (which is Sunday 9 January this year) the gospel account of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist is sung at the principal service and new water is blessed in the baptismal font. Following such a service the priest and people then move to their nearest waterway to give thanks for the gift of water, to pray for health and fulness of life in the year which has just begun, and to sum this up by casting a cross into the water.

This tradition first came to the West Village in 2019 when the two priests of St John’s in the Village (Episcopal) and St John’s Christopher Street (Lutheran) came together at Pier 45 with groups from their congregations after having first celebrated their separate services in their churches. Of course, though, the tradition had been known in the USA well before 2019.

The Blessing of the Waters first began in the Orthodox Churches (of Greece, Russia, etc), when it was held on 6 January (the Epiphany) each year. In the 19th century Greek and Russian immigrants to New York City and other parts of the USA brought with them many cultural treasures from their homelands including, of course, their Orthodox faith and its customs. The best-known example of this is not in New York, but in Florida, at Tarpon Springs, where the Greek-American community, after the church service, processes to the Spring Bayou, where the cross is cast into the water and a dove is released. (In the Biblical narrative the Holy Spirit is seen as a dove alighting on Jesus at his Baptism).

It was not until well into the 20th century that Western Christians (Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc) began to understand the value of such yearly thanksgiving over water and began to incorporate the Blessing of the Waters into their ritual year.

Today in London, England, for example, the Church of England (ie Episcopal Church) Dioceses of London (north of the river) and Southwark (south of the river) meet half-way, on London Bridge, to bless the River Thames together on the Sunday after Epiphany.

This year in the West Village, whose waterway is, of course, the Hudson River, the Blessing of the Waters, casting of the cross, and release of the dove, will take place on Sunday 9 January at 12.45pm at the end of Pier 45. Just show up there (masks optional as this is an outdoor event) if you would like to witness the ceremony. There is also the opportunity to dine casually (and safely) with others who have attended the Blessing of the Waters in the nearby neighborhood trattoria Malatesta. You must be fully vaccinated to join the lunch.

On that same Sunday a special 11am Choral Eucharist, with professional choir, featuring such relevant traditional repertoire as Down in the River to Play and Shall we Gather at the River, is celebrated at St John’s in the Village (corner of West 11th Street and Waverly Place) prior to the walk down to Pier 45. Those of any faith (or of none) are welcome to attend this (and all Christians are welcome to receive Holy Communion). For full details, to register, or to pre-book lunch see hudson2022.eventbrite.com or contact Fr Graeme Napier (rector@stjvny.org), the Rector of St John’s in the Village

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