The face of the waters
PUBLISHED: 12:50 21 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:27 20 February 2013
The Blessing of the Waters ceremony takes place in Greek Orthodox communities around the world – and in our very own seaside resort of Margate, which is home to a large Greek Cypriot community. Kent Life investigates this ancient tradition
The face of the waters
Does anyone know the collective noun for macebearers? Together with a bench of bishops and a pontification of priests (yes, they are genuine nouns of assemblage), more than a dozen mayors with their macebearers are due to attend the annual Blessing of the Seas ceremony at Margate on the tenth of this month.
Organised by the Greek Orthodox Church, the ceremony is a major event in the calendar of temporal as well as spiritual leaders.
The service in Margate is for the Feast of the Epiphany/Theophany in commemoration of the baptism of Christ in the Jordan, says the Very Revd. Archimandrite, Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou, serving the Greek Orthodox Cathedral All Saints.
He adds: Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church are usually marked by special blessings and ceremonies, in the case of Theophany with the great blessing of the waters.
In the Eastern church, the baptism of Jesus is celebrated at Epiphany on 6 January (Catholics and Episcopalians celebrate it a week later on 13 January). Theophany means a visible manifestation of God into a human being.
According to the Bible, when Jesus was baptised: he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven saying This is my beloved Son (Matthew ch. 3, v. 17)
The baptism of Jesus is therefore considered to reveal the divinity of Jesus and is celebrated as a major feast day in the Christian church.
Those who perform the dive of the Holy Cross are considered particularly blessed
The Blessing of the Waters ceremony takes place in Greek Orthodox communities around the world. Margate was chosen for the ceremony in the early 1960s because of its proximity to the sea and because the town was home to one of the two major centres for the Greek Cypriot community in Kent; the other was Maidstone.
Margate has welcomed settlers from Cyprus since the island became a Crown Colony in 1925 and is home to a large Greek Cypriot community.
The celebration begins with a service at St Michael the Archangel, the Greek Orthodox Church at Margate. It is probably the Greek Orthodox Church established longest in Kent and has been serving the Greek community since 1965.
After the service, dignitaries process from Westbrook Cottages along Canterbury Road and Marine Terrace to Marine Sands for the ceremony of the Blessing of the Seas, which is held on the beach.
For many years the procession has been led by a Pipe Band. At first the connection between bagpipes and the Greek Orthodox Church is not obvious, but the pipers hark back to connections with the military bands of the British Army, whose regiments served in Cyprus.
At the time of writing, plans are to have the 2010 procession led by a marching band of the Margate Girls and Boys Brigade. Following the band are dignitaries from Margate, the local MP, mayors from all over Kent, clergy from other Christian denominations and the consular authorities of Greece and Cyprus.
At the end of the procession are clergy from the Greek Orthodox Church, including Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateria and Great Britain, who conducts the blessing.
To those watching, much of what happens does so in the huddle of worshippers around the archbishop and is somewhat obscured by the crowd.
Doves are released to symbolise peace, and Archbishop Gregorios also distributes sprigs of rosemary, but the most dramatic moment of the service is towards the end when a wooden cross decorated with greenery is thrown into the sea to bless the waters.
Immediately a volunteer, or sometimes more than one, jumps in to retrieve it and hand it back to the archbishop. Pragmatically there is nothing about the service which is not pragmatic (the archbishop has been known to wear wellington boots beneath his finery when it is snowing) the cross is attached to a long ribbon the end of which the archbishop firmly retains. The Greek Orthodox Church doesnt want one of its community swimming out to sea to retrieve a cross floating out on the tide. Particularly in January.
Contra-intuitively the sea is usually at its coldest in March, but in January is still only around 10 degrees. Volunteer(s) in swimming costume are swathed in blankets both before and after their icy plunge, and medics from St Johns Ambulance Brigade are also on hand to make sure there are no ill effects. Those who perform the dive of the Holy Cross, to give the retrieval its correct title, are considered particularly blessed.
Although not unduly long, the service can be tiring for the elderly so a sheltered seating area is provided for dignitaries who want to sit down. It is perhaps ironic that one of the oldest participants cannot take advantage of the seating thoughtfully provided. Archbishop Gregorios is nearly 82.
Much, but not all of the service is conducted in Greek, and is nothing if not eclectic. Prayers are offered for virtually everyone, including for our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Family, her Government and all in authority and every city, town and village and for the faithful who dwell in them.
Nor is the Church of England overlooked. During the 2009 ceremony, when offering prayers for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Gregorios twinkled at the onlookers and added who is the boss of all of you Anglican people here.
Part of the Blessing of the Waters service includes the words the deeps tremble before you, the springs are your servants. You stretched out the heavens on the waters; you walled in the sea with sand [Archimandrite Ephrems translation]
A service which takes place on Margate sands in January seems an unlikely event to lift spirits suffering from post-Christmas depression, yet it succeeds magnificently in lightening the darkest time of the year.
A major feast day for the church and a major civic spectacle, the Blessing of the Seas manages to be both. The Greek Orthodox community in Margate ensures that its celebrated as such.
Roger Gale, MP for Margate, Herne Bay and The Villages, has attended the Blessing of the Seas ceremony for the last 26 years and says: Its a very important date in the local community calendar. The ceremony is not only important to the Greek Orthodox Church, but one which the people of Margate have made their own.
Civic leaders from all over Kent attend the Blessing of the Seas, and I certainly regard it as a fixed point in my calendar and one event I will not miss even if the weather is not always kind!
DID YOU KNOW?
â– 2010 will be the 46th Blessing of the Seas ceremony in Margate
â– The state of the tide dictates the exact location for the ceremony low tide on the beach, high tide on the slipway and therefore affects all administrative arrangements. The Harbour Office at Ramsgate advises
â– Thanet District Council cleans the beach before the ceremony to ensure that nobody slips on seaweed or other flotsam
â– The ceremony is held whatever the weather. Recent years have seen sun, fog and horizontal sleet
â– Before the Greek community had its own church in Margate, some of the first Greek Orthodox church services in Kent were held in the Florendia Guest House, owned by a member of the community
â– St Michael the Archangel, the Greek Orthodox Church at Margate was formerly a Methodist Chapel and has been used as a chemists shop
â– Fr Gregorios has been Archbishop of Thyateria and Great Britain for nearly 22 years
â– In very cold countries where rivers and lakes freeze, a hole in the shape of a cross is cut in the ice for the service of the Blessing of the Waters, rather than throwing a cross into the water and having someone freeze while fishing it out