The Rev. Demetrios G. Kalaris, pastor of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, sprinkled holy water on the icons, the congregation and the corners of his church yesterday, and even outside on the snowy steps as part of a centuries-old Epiphany rite observed by Orthodox Christians.

The people made the sign of the Corps with their thumbs and first two fingers pressed together as he passed along the church's aisles. Afterward they took home small bottles of the holy water to ward off evil, fight illness and remind them of their Christian obligations this year.

"This water has the power to destroy evil, defeat impermanence and unpollute all those things which contaminate our hearts, minds and bodies," the priest told his people.

"We invoke the Holy Spirit today to sanctify this water so we can have peace, love, joy, good will and temperance," he added.

The "blessing of the water" for the Greek, Russian Armenian and other Orthodox Christians is different from the Epiphany observance commemorated annually on Jan. 6 by Protestants and Roman Catholics. These western Christian traditions recall Epiphany as the time when Christ's divinity was revealed to the Magi, and, appropriately, in Spanish-speaking communities, the festival is known as Three Kings Day.

Orthodox Christians, or Eastern Orthodox, who regard themselves as the preservers of the faith as it was originally practiced by the earliest Christians, believe that on this day, Jesus' divinity was manifested after He was immersed in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. A dove descended from Heaven, according to the Bible, and God's voice named Jesus as His Divine Son.

The portion of the 40,000-member Orthodox Christian community in Washington that follows the western calendar - and thus celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25 - had water purification ceremonies yesterday. This group is mainly Greek Orthodox.

The rest of the community - which follows the old Julian calender - won't receive the water blessing until Jan. 19. For this group, today is Christmas.

As is the custom in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy - the church's name for the mass - Father Kalaris and his assistant, the Rev. Nick Milas, stood at the altar with their backs to the congregation and sang the hour and a half ritual in a plain chant antiphonally with a cantor and the church's junior choir.

The altar is separated from the rest of the church by a tall wall of elaborately painted icons showing Christ and other holy figures. From time to time, the priests turned to face the people who stood silently during most of the liturgy. Occasionally, the priests rang bells and swung thick incense into the church.

As the people entered the church, they brought candles to light to invoke God's blessing. Several workshippers carried their candles to the front of the church where they lit them on behalf of a sick friend or to signify their own name day. They bent over and kissed the nearby icons.

During the next few months, the priests in these churches will visit their parishioner's homes to bless them with holy water.

The six million Orthodox Christians in the U.S. have generally a tamer version of the water blessing than the festive processions and immersions in rivers in warmer climates in Europe and the Middle East.

In these nations, where Orthodoxy began large crowds gather as a priest tosses a cross into a river or stream and the children dive in to retrieve it. People drink water from the stream and scoop it into bottles to carry home.