An ancient ceremony that traces its roots to the Church of Jerusalem will play out today at the base of West Grand Traverse Bay.
The Rev. Ciprian Streza of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church will lead a Great Blessing of the Water ceremony at 10 a.m. at the Clinch Park Marina pier. The event, traditionally held on Jan. 6 or Epiphany, commemorates Christ's baptism in the Jordan River and the manifestation of the Holy Trinity. It also expresses Orthodoxy's belief that creation is sanctified through Christ.
The local church is holding the ceremony on a Saturday, in hopes that more people can attend.
The ceremony will begin with the singing of several liturgical poems composed in the third century followed by the immersion of a wood cross into a font three times. The blessings will conclude with the ceremonial tossing of the cross into Lake Michigan.
"In places like Florida, the young men of the church dive in after the cross, but we like the young men of our church," said Streza, with a laugh, referring to the icy waters of Grand Traverse Bay.
After the ceremony, the holy water will be distributed to the faithful to drink as a reminder of their own baptism. It also will be used to bless homes during the Epiphany season.
The Great Blessing of the Water is one of several traditions practiced by the church, the only Orthodox Church in Michigan north of Grand Rapids. Services are chanted or sung, led by an a cappella choir. In addition to prayers, hymns and Scripture readings, they include ceremonies, gestures and processions.
"Everything we do has a much deeper meaning and a much broader perspective," said Streza, 31, who came to the church in June as its first full-time priest. "It took 2,000 years to get here."
Established in 1999 by a group of Orthodox Christians, the church was given a permanent name in 2009 by His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas of Detroit, a bishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. It serves northern Michigan as far as Sault Ste. Marie as part of the Metropolis of Detroit.
"We have people driving from Petoskey every Sunday for Divine Liturgy," the most important worship in Orthodoxy, Streza said.
The church is housed in a storefront on Hastings Street and includes a chapel, a community center and a church school. But Streza said officials are looking at properties with an eye for building a proper church within the next few years.
The Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian denomination in the world and can trace its roots back to the Apostles. Occupying a prominent place in its worship and theology are Christ, Mary, the saints and angels. Known for its colorful art and architecture, which celebrates the beauty of God's creation, the faith was brought to the U.S. by various ethnic groups but now is embraced by Orthodox Christians of all backgrounds and ethnicities.
"You don't have to be Greek to be Greek Orthodox," Streza said, referring to the one of the biggest misconceptions about the church. "Everything is conducted in English."
He said the Traverse City church believes in traditional worship for modern life and offers members "spiritual truth" rather than "entertainment."
"Generally they are people who seek depth. This is not the light version of church," said Streza, whose rigourous religious education included seven years of university and theology study. "You don't have to be a theologian to be a Greek Christian but chances are you will become one."
Streza is a native of Romania and the son of a priest. He received a master of divinity degree from Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston and was ordained in 2007 at Holy Trinity-Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Cincinnati. His family includes wife Presvytera Streza and daughters Katherine Victoria, 3, and Anna Sophia, 1 month.
The Traverse City parish includes about 80 families. But Streza hopes to broaden the church's reach in the community as a way to share the "richness and beauty" of the faith. Besides hosting its annual Taste of Greece dinner in July, the church recently advertised on a lightbox at the Grand Traverse Mall and posted Streza's classes in Divine Liturgy on YouTube (www.youtube.com/user/fatherciprian).
"I think we have a whole lot to offer and I don't think we've lived up to our covenant," Streza said. "The culture of Traverse City -- the sense of community and fellowship, relationship to the environment and nature, and the ecology -- fits perfectly with our mentality of our relationship to creation."
Divine Liturgy is held Sundays at 10 a.m. Classes are offered spring and fall.