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Epiphany on the Kuskokwim

A cross is carved into the frozen Kuskokwim River, revealing deep, silty water. The midday sun is low and soft, and the wind has a bite. Before long, a group of people from St. Jacob’s Church make their way down to the river for the Epiphany service.

The Epiphany is a holiday celebrated by Orthodox Christians all over the world, commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. In Napaskiak, Julia Sipary leads Troparian hymns in English and Yugtun while James Nicholai reads from the Epistle. Fr. Alexander Larson performs the service from a pulpit carved from ice before blessing the river water three times in honor of the Holy Trinity.

“We believe we die from old sins and renew ourselves to new creation, which Christ did through baptism,” explains Larson. “After the Theophany you should bring holy water and use it to bless yourself. Whenever we need it for health reasons, when we are sick, we bless ourselves with the holy water.”

People attending the service wash their hands and faces in the freshly blessed river water and then collect it in bottles. Finally, Yako Jacob and Nicholai fill a large rain barrel, hoist it on to a sled, and haul it back to the village where it will be used to bless the church and homes in the new year.

Katie Baldwin Basile is an independent photographer and multimedia storyteller from Bethel, Alaska.