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Newhalen celebrates the Great Blessing of Water at Theophany

In the early days of the new year, the Russian Orthodox church celebrates Theophany and the Great Blessing of Water. In Newhalen, the community gathers at the river that flows into Iliamna Lake — Nanvarpak in Yup'ik and Nila Vena in Dena'ina.

Walking toward Newhalen’s Russian Orthodox church, you can hear the faint sound of singing. A bell rings. A small congregation gathers inside, where the air smells of incense.

It’s Jan. 19, the Russian Orthodox holiday of Theophany, also called Epiphany, which commemorates Jesus Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan.

After the service, people crowd out of the church and jump on four wheelers and in cars to drive down to the Newhalen River.

A cross has been cut into the ice along the river bank and is filled from below with water. The wind blows and people sing hymns. When the water has been blessed, one of the priests uses a cup to fill jugs nearby. Father David Askoak takes an aspergillum — a brush used for holy water — dips it into one of the containers and sprinkles the crowd with the water.

After the ceremony, several people head to Askoak's house for a celebratory meal.

The house is filled with the smell of french toast, bacon and coffee. A tray full of dried salmon strips sits on the kitchen table — king salmon from family and friends on the Nushagak. A stack of well-used ulu knives sits on the window sill, and a richly decorated altar fills one corner of the room.

Askoak has lived in Newhalen for 40 years. He grew up in the village of Russian Mission, on the Yukon River.

“When we grew up, we always had holy water. It was a sign of God's blessing,” he said. “Whenever you’re sick, whenever you need, bring holy water, saying a prayer. When God created the world, we hear that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters and he created everything and everything that he saw in the beginning was good. So when Christ came he regenerated and he recreated the world through him, making everything good again, the way that it’s supposed to be.”

Father Thomas Andrew is the chancellor of the diocese of Alaska. He grew up in the neighboring village of Marshall.

“As a child, we’ve seen our old, elderly priests, back in the ‘60s, they would come down to the river on the Yukon at Russian Mission at 40 [degrees] below. And it's c-c-c-cold,” he said, laughing.

Andrew said Theophany means ‘God revealed.' Water is a basic need in life, which makes the holiday all the more important.

“To bless their homes, to bless your vehicles. Whenever we have any kind of spiritual problems like say, I don't know, we can't sleep or something's bothering us spiritually, we bless ourselves with holy water, or we drink some of it. And it gets us to bless a lot of things. It's really for the well-being of the family or the individual. And demons are afraid of it,” he said, laughing again.

Blessing the water has a deep significance throughout the year, according to Andrew.

“Blessing of homes is to reclaim Christ's domain because in our lives too, we, as Christ-believing people, also believe that we live with Christ beginning in this world and extending into the world to come, the life to come,” he said.

The holiday is a time to reset and reflect on how water reveals life, according to Andrew. At the house, people gather around the table, ready to dig into the feast before them. Before they sit down to eat, they pray.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.