On an unseasonably warm Saturday, along the banks of the Mississippi River as it flows between St. Paul and Minneapolis, the sounds of prayers and chanting drifted over the crunching of ice and the squeaking of winter boots.
More than 50 people from across the Twin Cities gathered at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul to celebrate the Blessing of the Waters on the eve of Theophany, or Epiphany — the Orthodox Christian celebration of the baptism of Jesus.
The crowd gathered around clergy members, reciting prayers.
Archpriest Paul Hodge, president of the Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association, helped lead the prayers.
“It’s one Christian faith,” he said of the various Orthodox Christian churches. “We can sort of all complete each other’s sentences when it comes to statement of faith and dogma, but there are local churches which are administered from various regional centers like Moscow; Constantinople or Istanbul; Athens, Greece; Alexandria, Egpyt … ”
Members of the Orthodox Christian faith make up less than 1 percent of the population in Minnesota and in the United States. But worldwide, it’s the second-largest branch of Christianity, after the Roman Catholic Church.
At Saturday’s gathering, Hodge wore a long grey and black robe called a cassock and a traditional Greek Orthodox vest with a brimmed hat from Middle Eastern clergy tradition.
After a 30-minute ceremony, Hodge and the other clergy members immersed a small cross into the Mississippi River, making a blessing over the river and sprinkling the water from the cross over the crowd.
“We are here to celebrate the love of God, his presence in the whole universe and his revealing himself to us in his baptism in the River Jordan,” Hodge said.
The Mississippi and Jordan rivers may seem worlds apart — but for Sasha Cross, who was born in Eastern Europe and now lives in Minnetonka, Saturday’s gathering was the closest she’s felt to home this holiday season.
“It really means a lot to me, coming from Ukraine, having the same kind of experience here — (it) means my kid can have same experiences I did when I was a child,” she said.
Organizers said the turnout for the event along the river continues to grow each year as word spreads about the celebration, uniting people from all over the world along the edge of the Mississippi River.