So why do Orthodox Christians bless water, and other material things? How can water “be” holy? How can the grace of God be contained in some material object? The word “holy” has a double meaning in the ancient Christian Church, which means “not earthly” or “set aside for a special purpose.” God commanded His people to “Be holy as I am holy,” (Leviticus 11.44-5) and Saint Peter affirmed the call to holiness in the New Testament. If God commanded people to be holy, it would mean that material things can become holy. There are dozens of references in the Old Testament to material objects being holy. If we understand the word as “set aside for a special purpose,” then it becomes clear.
When Orthodox Christians bless material things, such as the water at the Blessing of Florence, we are asking God to use those material things for a special purpose. Especially in the case of water, which is the single most important physical requirement for life, blessing water means blessing life itself. For Orthodox Christians, the created world has been given to us by God for a special purpose – to find God. Throughout history, the physical world has assisted humanity to understand God. Both the Old and New Testament are filled with references to the earth being a sign for God’s love and power. Earthquakes, stars, floods, clouds, refreshing rain, harsh droughts and even solar eclipses have been used by God to reveal Himself to humanity. To prove His point Jesus said, “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.” (Luke 19.40)
If the material world should not be used for God to bless humanity, then He would have remained a distant God and called down from His throne, “Ok, I forgive you. You may now go about your business as usual.” But God did in fact use creation as way for us to find Him. It is humanity that abuses creation and uses it for selfish purposes. It is humanity that assigns monetary value to life, not God. If by asking God to bless material things, we (thing by thing) set aside the material world to the original purpose God had intended, we are partners with God, not enemies. Just try to reach out to God without using any material thing – no building, no mountain top, no peaceful valley, not even the voice that flows from our lips – it just cannot be done. That’s why Orthodox Christians bless material things.
Athanasios C. Haros, the pastor of Transfiguration of Our Savior Greek Orthodox Church, is a member of the Morning News’ Faith & Values Advisory Board.