Festivities in Focus | A Christian Orthodox church marks Theophany

On the rainy bank of the Pilchuck River in Snohomish, a growing St. Thomas Orthodox Church celebrated the Holy Trinity and the baptism of Jesus.

A group of people holding umbrellas stands on the bank of a stream, at the center a priest wears yellow vestments

The congregation of St. Thomas Orthodox Church gathers on the bank of the Pilchuck River as Fr. David Sommer leads the Blessing of the Waters ceremony during a service celebrating the Feast of Theophany, a Christian Orthodox holiday marking the baptism of Jesus, Jan. 8, 2023. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

On Sunday morning, a group of about 40 members of St. Thomas Orthodox Church in Snohomish gathered on the rainy bank of the Pilchuck as Father David Sommer strode out into the cold, ankle-deep water with a wooden cross. 

They watched as Fr. Sommer dipped the cross into the stream, to bless the water and symbolize the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. He returned to the bank to bless those gathered with the holy water as well.

Rachel Mullins lifts her son Elijah up to kiss an icon in a darkened church lit by candles

Rachel Mullins lifts her son Elijah to kiss an icon during the Divine Liturgy at St. Thomas Orthodox Church in Snohomish. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Rachel Mullins lifts her son Elijah to kiss an icon during the Divine Liturgy at St. Thomas Orthodox Church in Snohomish. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

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.

at left, a photo of a priest in gold vestments holding an ornate bible and cross on a river bank, at right a hand lights candles in a church

Left: Fr. David Sommer carries a cross and ceremonial Bible after blessing the waters of the Pilchuck River. Right: Parishioners light candles during the liturgy. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Left: Fr. David Sommer carries a cross and ceremonial Bible after blessing the waters of the Pilchuck River. Right: Parishioners light candles during the liturgy. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Two altar boys stand on either side of a clergy member reading from a Bible. The boy on the left yawns.

Members of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, including altar boys Mason Mullins, 9, left, and Isaac Schenk, 10, participate in the Theophany service. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Members of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, including altar boys Mason Mullins, 9, left, and Isaac Schenk, 10, participate in the Theophany service. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

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. 

A close up of altar boy as he looks up at Father David Sommer

Altar boy Isaac Schenk, 10, looks up at Fr. David Sommer during the Divine Liturgy service at St. Thomas Orthodox Church. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Altar boy Isaac Schenk, 10, looks up at Fr. David Sommer during the Divine Liturgy service at St. Thomas Orthodox Church. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Parishoners touch the vestments of Father David Sommer and he prays over the eucharist

Parishioners touch the vestments of Fr. David Sommer as he prays over the eucharist during the Divine Liturgy. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Parishioners touch the vestments of Fr. David Sommer as he prays over the eucharist during the Divine Liturgy. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

A child and others line up to receive the eucharist from a priest

Fr. David Sommer hands a piece of blessed bread, called the Prosphora, to Rayna Ammon, 3, standing with her mother Alissa Ammon, during services at St. Thomas Orthodox Church. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Fr. David Sommer hands a piece of blessed bread, called the Prosphora, to Rayna Ammon, 3, standing with her mother Alissa Ammon, during services at St. Thomas Orthodox Church. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

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.

A priest and three altar boys walk through a wooded area

Fr. David Sommer, left, and altar boys Nicholas Schenk, 7, Mason Mullins, 9, and Isaac Schenk, 10, lead a procession through Pilchuck Park to the Pilchuck River in Snohomish as they celebrate the Feast of Theophany. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Fr. David Sommer, left, and altar boys Nicholas Schenk, 7, Mason Mullins, 9, and Isaac Schenk, 10, lead a procession through Pilchuck Park to the Pilchuck River in Snohomish as they celebrate the Feast of Theophany. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

“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.

A group of people gather under umbrellas on a river bank around a priest in gold vestments

The congregation of St. Thomas Orthodox Church gathers on the bank of the Pilchuck River as Fr. David Sommer leads the Blessing of the Waters ceremony. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

The congregation of St. Thomas Orthodox Church gathers on the bank of the Pilchuck River as Fr. David Sommer leads the Blessing of the Waters ceremony. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Father David Sommer leans over in the middle of the ankle deep Pilchuck River to dip a wooden cross into the water

Fr. David Sommer dips a cross into the Pilchuck River, blessing the water and symbolizing the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, as St. Thomas Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of Theophany. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Fr. David Sommer dips a cross into the Pilchuck River, blessing the water and symbolizing the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, as St. Thomas Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of Theophany. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

A close up of Father Sommer sprinkling holy water on members of the congregation outside

Fr. David Sommer sprinkles holy water on the congregation as they gather on the bank of the Pilchuck River. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Fr. David Sommer sprinkles holy water on the congregation as they gather on the bank of the Pilchuck River. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

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. 

Left: A tattered prayer book is seen on a lectern. Right: Father James Bernstein stands in the rain wearing a black rain hood and wood cross around his neck

Left: A tattered prayer book is seen on a lectern. Right: Fr. James Bernstein stands in the rain during the Blessing of the Waters ceremony on the bank of the Pilchuck River as St. Thomas celebrates the Theophany, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Left: A tattered prayer book is seen on a lectern. Right: Fr. James Bernstein stands in the rain during the Blessing of the Waters ceremony on the bank of the Pilchuck River as St. Thomas celebrates the Theophany, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

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.”

A group of people stand outside under umbrellas. An altar boy in white is at the center of the crowd.

The congregation of St. Thomas Orthodox Church gathers on the bank of the Pilchuck River as Fr. David Sommer leads the Blessing of the Waters ceremony. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

The congregation of St. Thomas Orthodox Church gathers on the bank of the Pilchuck River as Fr. David Sommer leads the Blessing of the Waters ceremony. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Two photos of a man and a woman each holding a small child during a church service

People listen during the Divine Liturgy at St. Thomas Orthodox Church as they celebrate the Feast of Theophany. Many church members have young children. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

People listen during the Divine Liturgy at St. Thomas Orthodox Church as they celebrate the Feast of Theophany. Many church members have young children. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

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.”

A group of people, including several children, walk around and sit at tables eating food.

The congregation of St. Thomas gathers for a fellowship hour after church services to share a meal as they celebrate the Feast of Theophany. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

The congregation of St. Thomas gathers for a fellowship hour after church services to share a meal as they celebrate the Feast of Theophany. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

This photo essay is part of an ongoing series on holiday celebrations. If you have a celebration you would like Crosscut to attend, please let us know by emailing amanda.snyder@crosscut.com

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About the Authors & Contributors

Genna Martin

Genna Martin

Genna Martin is Crosscut's associate photo editor.