A quantity of holy water is typically kept in a font placed near the entrance of the church where it is available for anyone who needs it. Holy water is sometimes sprinkled on items or people when they are blessed, as part of the prayers of blessing. For instance, in Alaska, the fishing boats are sprinkled with holy water at the start of the fishing season as the priest prays for the crews' safety and success. Orthodox Christians most often bless themselves with holy water by drinking it. It is traditional to keep a quantity of it at home, and many Orthodox Christians will drink a small amount daily with their morning prayers. It may also be used for informal blessings when no clergy are present. For example, parents might bless their children with holy water before they leave the house for school or play.
The use of holy water is based on the story of Jesus' baptism by Saint John the Baptist in the River Jordan and the Orthodox interpretation of this event. In this view, John's baptism was a baptism of repentance, and the people came to have their sins washed away by the water. Since Jesus had no sin, but was God himself, his baptism had the effect of Jesus blessing the water, making it holy, that is used fully for its original created purpose to be an instrument of life.
Jesus' baptism is commemorated in the Orthodox Church at the Feast of Theophany (literally "God shining forth") on January 6. At the Vespers of this feast, a font of holy water is typically blessed in the church, to provide holy water for the parish's use in the coming year. The next morning, the prayers often include a trip to a nearby river, lake or other public source of drinking water, to bless that water as well. This represents the redemption of all creation as part of humanity's salvation. In the following weeks, the priest typically visits the homes of the parish's members and prays prayers of blessing for their families, homes and pets, sprinkling them with holy water. Again, this practice is meant to visibly represent God's sanctifying work in all parts of the people's lives.
Holy water can also be blessed at any other time of the year if there is a need, and this is usually done on the first day of a month. The holy water used for a baptism is blessed as part of the baptism service.
Blessing of holy water at Theophany
On the feast of Holy Theophany holy water is blessed twice, at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgies both on the eve and on the feast itself. After processing to the place where the vessel of water is prepared to the singing of appropriate troparia there are a group of Scripture readings culminating in the baptism account from the Gospel of Saint Mark (1:9-11) followed by the Great Litany. This is sung just as for the Liturgy, but with the following additional petitions which make clear what is being asked of God and what the use, purpose, and blessing of the water is believed to entail.
- That these waters may be sanctified by the power, and effectual operation, and descent of the Holy Spirit:
- That there may descend upon these waters the cleansing operation of the super-substantial Trinity:
- That he will endue them with the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan, the might, and operation, and descent of the Holy Spirit:
- That Satan may speedily be crushed under our feet, and that every evil counsel directed against us may be brought to naught:
- That the Lord our God will free us from every attack and temptation of the enemy, and make us worthy of the good things which he hath promised:
- That he will illumine us with the light of understanding and of piety, and with the descent of the Holy Spirit:
- That the Lord our God will send down the blessing of Jordan and sanctify these waters:
- That this water may be unto the bestowing of sanctification; unto the remission of sins; unto the healing of soul and body; and unto every expedient service:
- That this water may be a fountain welling forth unto life eternal:
- That it may manifest itself effectual unto the averting of every machination of our foes, whether visible or invisible:
- For those who shall draw of it and take of it unto the sanctification of their homes:
- That it may be for the purification of the souls and bodies of all those who, with faith, shall draw and partake of it:
- That he will graciously enable us to perfect sanctification by participation in these waters, through the invisible manifestation of the Holy Spirit:
Then, following a lengthy set of didactic prayers that expound on the nature of the feast and summarize salvation history, praising God's creation of and mastery over the elements, the priest makes the Sign of the Cross over the water with his hand and prays specifically for the blessing to be invoked upon it. At the climax of the service, he immerses the hand cross into the water three times in imitation of Christ's baptism to the singing of the festal troparion and then blesses the entire church and congregation with the newly consecrated water.