Holy waters: Church celebrates Feast of Epiphany at Goleta Beach

A group from St. Athanasius Antiochian Orthodox Church takes part in a Blessing of the Ocean ceremony on Sunday. NIK BLASKOVICH / NEWS-PRESS
A group from St. Athanasius Antiochian Orthodox Church takes part in a Blessing of the Ocean ceremony on Sunday.

A group of faithful from St. Athanasius Antiochian Orthodox Church in Goleta celebrated the Feast of Epiphany on Sunday morning with a Blessing of the Ocean. Led by Father Nicholas Speier, the congregation of about 70 performed the ceremony shared by Eastern Orthodox churches worldwide.

This local church, however, was able to use Goleta Beach on a sunny mid-morning, with warming post-storm weather as a backdrop.

The church, since turning orthodox in 1987, has celebrated Epiphany for the past 27 years. Parishioners used to walk to the ocean next to Isla Vista when the church was located on Embarcadero del Mar. Since relocating and becoming more Goleta-centric, it has chosen a spot to the west of Goleta Pier. They’ve had rainy days and sunny ones, and ones like Sunday that contained a little of both.

The church believes that by blessing the waters, God will move and act through water to save all creation. The ceremony also alludes to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River where, according to three of the four Gospels, he was revealed as the son of God.

“It’s an opportunity to participate in Christ’s sanctifying act of blessing the water and giving grace to creation in the waters of the Jordan,” said Father Nicholas. “And so we give a grace to creation by blessing the nearest body of water.”

That could be a creek in other parts of the world, or in Russia, where it’s frozen solid in winter, that could be a hole cut in the ice, said Father Jon-Stephen Hedges.

Epiphany’s official day is January 6, but many churches spread out the ceremony across several days. On the 6th, the church held a sort of communion. And after Sunday, there will be a blessing of the homes in the community that will last nearly two months.

“Even homeless camps, campers, cars and folks on the street will be blessed,” said Father Jon. St. Athanasius helped open the new Pescadero Lofts, a county housing project for the un-housed of Isla Vista, through its St. Brigid Fellowship.

Father Nicholas and Father Jon went to UCSB together back in their 20s and have since called the area home and raised families here.

“The joke in the parish is that Father Nicholas came to play football and do ROTC and Father Jon came for the revolution,” Father Jon said, referring to himself. “We were not on the same page, which is all the more interesting, as the years have gone by.”

After a divine liturgy filled with song, the clergy were led by young servers who carried lanterns, banners and a processional cross down to a small table by the water, on top of which was a bowl of water.

Through the litany, Father Nicholas dipped the cross in the water as a blessing. At the end of the ceremony Father Nicholas threw the wooden cross into the waves and seven children – some in swimsuits, some in street clothes, and one in a wet suit – dashed into the waves to retrieve it. Joseph Ballew, 15, had a height advantage and was able to get to it first. Traditionally, the one who brings the cross out of the water will receive a special blessing for the coming year.

“This is the last and first time I’m going to do it, in my clothes at least,” he joked. “The water was actually warm.”

The church is also celebrating the one-year anniversary of moving into its new home on Sumida Gardens Lane, which has accompanied a growing parish. Construction is expected to be fully complete in two years.

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