This tradition has been practiced for hundreds of years as part of the Feast of Theophany, sometimes called Epiphany, which is celebrated in Orthodox Christian traditions around the world on January 6.
“The Theophany celebrates the revelation of God and the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove, the first manifestation of the Trinity,” said Fr. Sommer.
In previous years, St. Thomas’s Theophany ceremony was held at Blackmans Lake in Snohomish and involved the church’s young men jumping into the freezing waters to retrieve the cross, but toxic algae made the dive impossible and forced them to find an alternate location.
For Father James Bernstein, Fr. Sommer’s father-in-law and an Orthodox priest himself, the Blessing of the Waters is also a way for Orthodox Christians to connect with the natural world. “When we put the holy water into the stream, the stream goes to the river and the river to the ocean. It’s a sanctification of nature. The Theophany reminds us that we are a part of nature and that it is to be blessed,” he said.
Before heading to the river, parishioners met for the Divine Liturgy in a large, nondescript repurposed barn just off Highway 2, a temporary location while they await construction of a new church building on the same property that will accommodate their growing numbers. While many churches have recently seen a decrease in attendance, Fr. Sommer estimates St. Thomas has grown by about 25 percent since 2020, including many new members not from an Orthodox background. He attributes this in part to the church’s effort to keep its doors open as much as possible during the pandemic.
“Being alone is never a good thing,” Fr. Sommer said. “People felt the world was falling down around them and needed a ballast in their life, others felt abandoned by their church. We left our doors open and people came.”
Throughout part of 2020, St. Thomas’ congregation met inside an open garage and outside under tents in the rain to accommodate state COVID lockdown rules. They also had to scale back social events like the after-church fellowship hour, when attendees share a meal or coffee.
Other members agreed that the community connections supplied by the church helped them through the difficulties of the past few years.
“It didn’t matter if we had to be outside in the rain, because we were together,” said Elise Dowell, who has attended the church for seven years. She added that St. Thomas has become the main social world for her two young daughters. Many families had small children in attendance on Sunday.
Even when they couldn’t meet in person, the presence of community was still felt. “You knew you were at home saying the same words at the same time as everyone else and that helped me feel connected,” Dowell explained, referring to morning and evening prayers recited daily by the faithful.
Elizabeth Weatherhogge, 17, has attended St. Thomas since she was 7 and has made many connections through the church, including meeting her best friend. “It’s a very tight knit community; everybody looks out for each other.”
After the Blessing of the Waters, parishioners returned to the barn for a warm drink (coffee) and a warm meal (chili). The sense of community was evident as people gathered at tables to eat and chat and children ran about, often indiscriminately into the arms of whatever adult was closest.
“I really missed coffee hour,” said Heather Sommer, wife of Fr. Sommer, who had spent much of the earlier service holding Elise Dowell’s younger daughter. “It’s glorious.”