Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Theophany on icy Kuskokwim

Father Michael Trefon of Bethel’s St. Sophia Orthodox Church leads a Theophany ceremony on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel’s boat harbor on January 19, 2019. The ritual is meant to recreate the baptism of Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament. (Credit Jacob Resneck / CoastAlaska)

January 19 marks a Russian Orthodox holy day. In Bethel, Russian Orthodox Christians commemorated the day by re-enacting the baptism of Jesus Christ on the frozen Kuskokwim River.

About a dozen Russian Orthodox parishioners gathered in the St. Sophia Church overlooking Bethel’s Tundra Ridge. After singing hymns, parishioners pile into their cars and trucks and drive down to the banks of the frozen river.

“It’s for a very important day for us Orthodox Christians, and Christians alike, who recognize the baptism of Jesus Christ,” Father Michael Trefon explained. “And it’s very important to re-enact, if you will, the baptism of Jesus Christ. And this is that memory. This is that festal day that we celebrate to day.”

January 19 is Theophany on the Orthodox calendar, which marks the day Jesus Christ was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.

“Not that Christ, the Son of God, needed to be baptized, or needed to be purified,” Trefon said. “But to set an example for the rest of us to be baptized, to be washed, to be cleaned.”

On the Kuskokwim river, an Orthodox cross, with its distinctively slanted crossbeam, has been expertly chainsawed out of the ice. With bare hands, Father Trefon dips a gold cross into the frigid waters pooled in the cross’ cut-away and sprinkles the water to bless parishioners. Orthodox Christians believe this blessed water is sanctified holy water.

The thermometer reads 9 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water can’t be much above freezing. If anyone is cold, nobody complains. But nobody dilly-dallies either.

In other Christian traditions this holiday is also known as Epiphany. Trefon said his small church has around 70 regular parishioners, though many more in Bethel identify as adherents to the Russian Orthodox tradition.

Regardless of a person’s belief system, it’s not hard to appreciate the connection between spiritual health and the icy cold, pristine waters drawn from a frozen Alaska river in dark, midwinter.