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Snow covered the banks of a river near Moscow where several hundred people led by Orthodox priests slid along an icy path on January 19 to cleanse their souls and bodies with the river water.

"When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in [the River] Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was manifested," sang a small choir in Church Slavonic barely audible to onlookers striving to get a glimpse of the activity at the river's edge. A priest dipped a heavy liturgical cross hanging on a rope into the water, making the sign of the cross three times.

Minutes later, sweaters and sheepskin coats were dropped on the snow, and the bravest of the pilgrims hurriedly crossed themselves before plunging into the icy river.

Although unusually mild for a Russian winter, the air temperature hovered around 0 degrees Celsius—far colder than temperatures were imagined to be in the ancient Middle East, where the ceremony to mark the festival of Epiphany had its origins in the first centuries AD.

In western Christianity, Epiphany—a Greek word meaning "manifestation"—marks the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, whereas in Orthodoxy, the festival commemorates the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, when, according to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove.

In many traditionally Orthodox countries, Epiphany is celebrated on January 19, 13 days later than in western churches, because most Orthodox churches still calculate the church year according to the Julian calendar.

Orthodox Christians believe that water from any river, pond, tap, or shower becomes Christ's baptismal water on this day.

The faithful celebrated Epiphany with water blessing ceremonies in various places around the world, from Serbia to Siberia to Ethiopia. ...

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Russian Faithful Plunge Into Icy Water as Holy Act at Epiphany
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January 2002

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