Beautiful and Otherworldly Photos of Orthodox Epiphany

Today on The Atlantic's World Calendar ...

Back on January 6 in our Gregorian calendar Epiphany post we promised to return with Russian Orthodox Epiphany photos. Many Orthodox churches, including those in Russia, Serbia, and the Ukraine, remain on the Julian calendar, thus celebrating Epiphany on January 19.

It's hard to beat the January 6 pictures of Nicolas Sarkozy eating a frangipane cake or a porcelain model of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Nevertheless, the Julian calendar celebrations do exactly that, proving once and for all that the Badass Christianity Prize probably belongs in Eastern Europe, despite the strong showing of the Catholic Church with its papal smoke signals.

Epiphany celebrations in these lands are characterized in part by a series of traditions that put college "polar bear plunges" to shame. In one, an Orthodox priest hurls a wooden cross into the river. Men dive after it and struggle to retrieve the cross. The one who gets the cross is supposedly blessed with good health in the coming year. A ritual in Russia recalls Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan by John the Baptist by having believers plunge into freezing water on the eve of Epiphany on January 18, the water having been blessed by an Orthodox priest. In some villages, ice holes are used for the rite, workers cutting through the ice of a frozen lake or river to form a pool in the shape of a cross. Below are some pictures of January 18-19 Epiphany celebrations in the past few years.

Men jump into the Nisava river to retrieve the wooden cross in Nis, south-eastern Serbia in the Epiphany celebrations of January 19, 2012. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

Winner Vladimir Stojanovic, January 19, 2012. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters).

This photo depicts an Epiphany celebration in 2012 taking place in the Moraca river in Podgorica, Montenegro. The priest, Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic, is preparing to throw the cross. (Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters)
A ceremony on the Buzim Lake, roughly 70 km north of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Temperature: -20.2 degrees Fahrenheit. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)
Epiphany in the Dnepr river in Ukraine in 2010. The men in blue and orange are rescue workers. The rescue workers are not pulling people out. They are clearing away ice to let more people in. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

The really hard core rituals involve a hole cut into the ice in the shape of a cross. This is a worker preparing a cross-shaped hole in the frozen Mana river near the village of Ust-Mana, in -25-degree weather. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)
Note the cross and altar that have been fashioned out of ice, standing on either side of the water hole. This ritual is taking place outside the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery about 500 km north of Moscow. Let's not re-litigate the Protestant Reformation -- which involved, among other things, a rejection of the (western) Catholic Church's own ornate rituals -- but there is an old-school beauty to these photos that makes Sunday in the Boston pews feel a little drab. (Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Reuters) 
A man bathing in a ritual in the village of Velikoye. (Sergei Karpukhim/Reuters)
Beautiful, otherworldly shot of a woman's reflection as she descends into the ice hole in Razliv Lake in Sestroretsk, 30km northwest of St. Petersburg. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)
Love the illuminated water. The Tsnyanskoye reservoir in Minsk, January 2012. (Vladimir Nikolsky/Reuters)
Rostov, 2010.  (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
A beautiful photo. Photographer Sergei Karpukhin seems to find all the most evocative Epiphany scenes. Both this and the image above it are from the town of Rostov. This one is from 2011. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
Happy Epiphany! A Cossack in traditional dress as part of Epiphany celebrations in 2011. (Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters)