After the Christmas season and before Lent, Orthodox priests have -- for centuries -- rushed to visit church-members' homes to bless them with prayers and splashes of holy water flung about with a foot-long brush or handfuls of basil.
Droplets of blessed water end up on beds and bookshelves, TVs and toys, potted plants and paintings, along with everything else.
"It's a chance to start over," said Father John Karcher of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Portland, Ore. "We clean out the cobwebs of sin. ... Then we make mistakes and muck it all up again. But we do this every year because God doesn't give up on us."
These rites flow out of the Feast of Theophany, which many Orthodox churches in America celebrate on Jan. 6, or on Jan. 19 for those using the ancient Julian calendar year-round. In addition to house blessings and liturgies, Orthodox clergy bless bodies of water -- rivers, lakes and oceans. In some parts of the world, this requires man-size holes cut into ice.
The feast's central message, said Karcher, is that "when Christ was baptized, he went into the waters and the waters didn't cleanse him -- it was the other way around. He blessed the waters and through them all of creation. ... It's a beautiful thing. God responds to our prayers that he sanctifies the waters -- again."
In one rite, priests pray that the blessed water will provide "a fountain of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a loosing of sins, a healing of sicknesses, a destruction of demons" so that worshippers will experience "the cleansing of souls and bodies, for the healing of sufferings, for the sanctification of homes and for every useful purpose."
The mysterious nature of these rites hit home a decade ago when Karcher led St. Innocent Orthodox Church in the Bay Area in northern California.
A parishioner took a bottle to church from his home icon corner to be refilled with water blessed at Theophany. He poured the remaining holy water from the previous year into an appropriate place -- one of two vases containing fresh-cut flowers.
A week later, one bouquet had withered, while the flowers in the vase with holy water remained fresh. After another Sunday or two, people began taking pictures -- noting how the "holy water flowers" stayed fresh. It took more than six weeks for the flowers to dry.
"No plant food or preservatives were added to the water of either vase," noted the nationally known bioethics writer Wesley J. Smith, a member of the parish. "Neither, as far as I know, had either been touched since."
After receiving a photo, Archbishop Benjamin of San Francisco noted: "It is wonderful when God breaks into our ordered world with its assumptions and categories and does something small that disturbs them. It is like a little nudge to say -- 'I am still here and still in charge no matter what you think.'" Smith included that statement in an online post that has circulated ever since.
"We didn't sensationalize what happened," Karcher said. "We didn't make a big deal out of it. ... But it's a memory that has lingered for us." This is, after all, a Theophany mystery worth pondering, he added.
It is always controversial when believers describe events of this kind, Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green once noted in a "Tasteless Miracles" commentary for National Public Radio. It's understandable when skeptics reject miracle claims.
Meanwhile, some openly mock possible miracles that are small and even somewhat strange -- like sweet-smelling tears forming on icons of the Virgin Mary.
"There are others who do believe in God, but just can't believe he'd do something like this," she said. "It's -- to tell the truth, it's kind of tacky. It's showy, and sentimental. God, if he's any kind of respectable deity at all, must be a paragon of exquisite taste." Simple humility is the proper response, she added.
Karcher said he considers that mysterious vase of flowers a "little love note from God. ... God sent us a bouquet to show us that he is with us.
"I'm not sure that I can explain little signs like this to nonbelievers. ... But believers can ask: 'If God can do something like this with flowers, what can he do with us?'"
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.