A small Florida city hosts what is believed to be the world’s largest Epiphany celebration. For the Greek Orthodox teenage boys who dive for the ritual’s white wooden cross, the event is also a chance at their own epiphany concerning the role of God in their lives.
That coveted cross has always been part of Dominic Stavrakis’ life.
The 17-year-old has listened to his father describe his own experience grasping for the cross in the murky waters of Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs, Fla. The white wooden cross, which Steve Stavrakis retrieved during the annual Epiphany celebration in 1980, is now framed and sits on his father’s home office desk.
“The cross has been a huge aspect of my father’s faith, and it’s a blessing of God,” the younger Stavrakis said -- “how the cross just landed in his hand, and he feels like he was chosen to get it. Every night he sits in front of it and prays.”
Stavrakis will be one of some 60 Greek Orthodox boys, ages 16 to 18, to participate in the 106th annual Epiphany celebration on Jan. 6, 2012, in this 26,000-person town known for its Greek heritage. Of all the Epiphany celebrations in the world on this day, the one in Tarpon Springs is said to be the largest, earning it the distinction in 1975 as “Epiphany City.”
The day will begin with an 8 a.m. service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Barefooted, the divers then will march through the streets to Spring Bayou.
Following the release of a dove and a special blessing from Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the boys will dive into the chilly waters of the bayou, each frantically working to be the one to retrieve the handmade white cross the archbishop has tossed in, as thousands of spectators watch their every move.
The dive is a ritual that recalls Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It is also the culmination of an intentional and prayerful effort on the part of the Greek Orthodox Church to steep the young men in the tradition of the church and form them as faithful Christians.
With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the dive -- the media, the procession, thousands of spectators, the dinner dance that night -- the church has worked to make sure that the focus of the event remains on God.
“I’ve been very strict, wanting them to be a part of the community,” said the Rev. Michael Eaccarino, dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral, which hosts the event. “These young men have to start to learn how to do hard things. Life is full of hard things. They have to learn to stand up, but in the light of Jesus Christ, and the nexus is the gospel. That will be their resource. That will be the well where they draw their water from.”
Stavrakis knows he may not retrieve the cross. But that’s a risk he knows he must take.
“It’s a blessing just to be able to participate,” he said. “The ceremony is just amazing, and being a part of it is part of the faith. It’s just so important.”
Questions to consider:
- What traditions do you draw on in the formation of the youth in your congregation or institution?
- How do you guide youth toward an epiphany about their faith? What questions do you ask them?
- In Tarpon Springs, extended family members play a key role in the formation of children. How do you equip parents, grandparents and others to nurture young people’s relationships with God? Who else is responsible for mentoring teenagers?
- Are there opportunities to infuse the culture of the community with some of your most cherished traditions?
‘Am I even worthy to participate in this?’
Epiphany is one of the great feasts in the Greek Orthodox Church, and more than 10,000 people stream to Tarpon Springs each year to mark the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. All of the divers are considered blessed for participating in the ceremony, but the one who retrieves the cross is said to gain a special blessing from God.
But about 10 years ago, the church noticed that the dive had become more of a sporting event than an opportunity for the young men to reflect spiritually and biblically on the cross. The boys had become focused on the competition to grab the cross, a feat that brings a wave of celebrity to the entire family.
In response, the church began requiring potential divers to attend weekly classes and write about their faith. (The lessons are now online for those who have scheduling conflicts.) Sunday school and regular church attendance are also mandatory.
“I had to tell the boys that the church is not here to make things difficult for you,” Eaccarino said. “The church is here to make things better, so I’m going to use whatever means necessary to reach you.”
The writing prompts the divers to consider the presence of God in their daily lives.
The boys are reminded of their baptisms and asked to name five ways they display love for God every day. Drawing on the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), they are asked to name three talents God has given them and how those are put to service in the church.
Do you feel that God loves you? How do you respond to those who sin against you? Do you read the Bible daily, and why? If you were to die instantly, what would death look like?
“The church is trying to prick their consciences,” Eaccarino said. “The true tradition of Epiphany lies in its meaning. What the questions are all about is to have the young men have some kind of epiphany. What is my life really about, and what does it mean to drop in this water after a cross? It’s about what my life is all about, and am I even worthy to participate in this?”
High school senior Louie Pappas, 18, retrieved the cross in 2011.
“We do it, honestly, for our religion and our pride,” Pappas said. “We take our religion very seriously. We are proud to be Greek. We want the blessing and want to share the blessing.”
Greek Orthodox boys who grow up in Tarpon Springs know the cross dive as a rite of passage from an early age.
They watch the dive every year, from a boat or the water’s edge. Their fathers dove for the cross. Their brothers dove for the cross. They dream that they will emerge from the water with the cross.
The Rev. George Patides, 50, has spent his life in Tarpon Springs. He is a retired Greek Orthodox priest of 22 years, and he dove for the cross in Tarpon’s Spring Bayou. His son dove, too.
In addition to a strong youth ministry, Patides said, Tarpon Springs has a “twofer” when it comes to Epiphany and faith.
“In Tarpon, it’s a little extra bonus, being Greek,” he said. “It goes hand in hand with being an Orthodox Christian. I would compare it to being Jewish. It’s both religious as well as a cultural identity. There is a profound cultural dimension.”
From birth, most with Greek heritage in this community begin to instill the Greek Orthodox Christian faith in their children, who become active at St. Nicholas and members of a national organization, Greek Orthodox Youth of America.
Nearly all the children, boys and girls, take Greek dance lessons.
Luke Pappas, 29, retrieved the cross in 2001. (He and Louie Pappas are second cousins.)
As a young child, Luke Pappas, together with his friends, would throw plywood crosses into the pool and pretend to be the retriever. But as the formal preparations for diving begin, the divers gain a deeper understanding about the celebration’s connection to their faith, he said.
“The town itself has a great deal of spirituality to it, and Epiphany is a culmination of growing up Greek,” said Pappas, who owns a string of restaurants in the Tampa Bay area. “Faith is always the center point of this town, and it always has been.”
Pantelis Kontodiakos, 20, is the punter at Colorado State University and retrieved the cross in 2009. For him, diving for the cross has been a family tradition. He was the fifth to retrieve it -- his father also retrieved the cross, as did three uncles.
Kontodiakos said that shortly after he retrieved the cross, good things started happening for him. The next month, for example, he was offered a football scholarship.
“Every Epiphany you get these goose bumps,” said Kontodiakos, a junior at CSU. “I just felt like I was truly blessed to retrieve it, and I thank God every day. It really had an effect on my life and helped strengthen my faith in God.”
Michael Tsalickis, 17, will be diving this year for the second time.
“Why are you diving? Because it’s not about fun and games,” said Tsalickis, a high school junior. “We are diving for a purpose. We are celebrating the baptism of Christ. It teaches the kids to know what they are diving for. It’s not the crowd.”