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WATCH: US Ambassador takes the pain, jumps into icy waters in Russia

“I want to feel close to the Russians.” US Ambassador Jon Huntsman took a plunge into an old Russian Orthodox Epiphany tradition, showing respect to Russia.

A video surfaced of the US Ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman plunging into the freezing waters of the River Istra, just after Russian President Vladimir Putin did the same.

For those of you unfamiliar with Russian culture, Mr. Huntsman is participating in an old Russian Epiphany (Theophany) tradition. His “baptism” in the frozen waters symbolizes the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. The River Istra where the Ambassador participated is located in the shadow of the great New Jerusalem Monastery. [Photos below]

Epiphany, better known amongst English speaking Orthodox Christians by the Greek word Theophany, or Богоявление (Bo-go-yav-LE-ni-ya) in Russian is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church which is celebrated in Russia on January 19th according to the Julian Calendar. The feast celebrates the Baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan, and the word itself in Greek and Russian means “Revealing Forth (or appearance) of God”.

The feast is celebrated according to the rubrics of the Church, with divine services and the blessing of Holy Water, however, it is common in many Orthodox countries for there to be a water-based tradition; for example, in some countries, a Cross is thrown into a river and soldiers dive to retrieve it.

In Russia, people “get baptized” in the colloquial term, by jumping into frozen water blessed by a Priest. The Church generally does not like this term however, as in Orthodoxy, only one baptism is recognized. People do not believe they are actually being baptized in a sacramental way, they are merely practicing a tradition which is not by any means a required part of the religion, like traditional baptism (in normal water) is.

It is symbolic that the US Ambbasor would plunge into the waters of the Istra River, as upon that river a massive and beautiful monastery is located: New Jerusalem Monastery. The monastery was built to be a “Russian Orthodox Zion” and as a result, the Istra River represents the Jordan River in which The Lord was baptized.

New Jerusalem Monastery was founded in 1656 by Patriarch Nikon, one of the Russian Orthodox Churches most controversial leaders. Under Patriarch Nikon, the schism with the older believes occurred, though while we may not all agree on the Patriarch’s legacy, no one can doubt the profound beauty of the Monastery.

It was built on a hill in the Moscow region, in the village of Istra, chosen because the countryside was said to bear a slight resemblance to Jerusalem. Due to the dangers of long-distance travel in the 17th century, the Monastery was built in order to simulated a trip to the Holy Land for Russian faithful.

President Putin visited the Monastery last year in order to see the finished restorations and the beauty there is amazing.

It is likely that the US Ambassador was taken to the Istra River for the Theophany tradition was due to the symbolic value of the river as a Russian Jordan, just as the Monastery was built to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Holy Cities in the city of Jerusalem.

For those of you with musical interests, below is the Troparion Hymn of Theophany performed by a Russian choir in the ancient Church Slavonic Language along with an English translation.

When in the Jordan Thou wast baptised, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bare witness unto Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son, and the Spirit, in the form of a Dove, confirmed the steadfastness of that word. O Christ our God, who didst manifest Thyself and dost enlighten the world: glory to Thee.

It is worth saying that there is sure to be some respect for Ambassador Huntsman, for participating in the tradition. It shows his respect for the Russian culture. This is how any diplomat should convey their friendship to the Russian people, not with meaningless words precipitating a backstab, but by plunging into the Russian culture.

Naturally, this has political motivations, it is not purely a sign of friendship, but also an intentional gesture to show respect to Russia, but that respect will not go unnoticed. Just as we shouldn’t take the meaning of the gesture too far, we also shouldn’t be so cynical as to criticize it. Regardless how small a sign it is, a small action speaks larger than thousands of words.

It is refreshing to see a western Ambassador truly delve deep into another culture, rather than remain foreign and aloof while giving meaningless compliments from an ivory tower. Bravo, let’s hope we see more of this spirit in general, though we’re not holding our breaths.

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