Holding true to tradition
By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
TARPON SPRINGS -- Nothing changes, really, in a celebration nearly 2,000 years old.
As Epiphany day approaches, Greek women are baking. The oak cross has been carved and painted white. Women in the church have ironed the clergy's gold robes. The cross divers, 42 of them, have proven to the church that they are worthy to dive, and have tied nine dinghies in a semicircle at Spring Bayou.
"This is a tremendous thing which is happening," said the Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos, head of the 1,000-member church that holds the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere. The meaning is individual, he said, and renewable every year.
The celebration has grown more and more spectacular in the 97 years that the church has observed it in Tarpon Springs. This year, a lost tradition, the blessing of the sponge boats, is returning.
The traditions of Epiphany remain true to their origins in Christ's baptism in the River Jordan in 30 A.D. The essential elements -- the Divine Liturgy at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the procession through downtown, the dive for the cross in Spring Bayou -- are centuries old but eternally powerful, Theophilopoulos said.
So powerful that, every year, up to 30,000 people come to see it. Every year, it makes dauntless young men cry.
The boat blessing
'The voice of the Lord thunders over the waters . . .'
In Tarpon Springs, to bless the water is to bless the entire town.
When the sponge divers settled here in 1905, one of the first things they did was build a little white wooden church. They named it St. Nicholas, after the patron saint who protected men at sea.
Each year, they asked a priest to bless the waters that drew them here from Greece, to bless the sponge and the fish and the boats, and to bless their lives as they risked them on the bottom of the ocean.
In the best days, the priest blessed 180 boats at the docks before they returned to sea after the holidays. But over time the fleet thinned, and the tradition died.
George Billiris remembers many of those blessings, which ended 15 or 20 years ago, he said.
The former sponge boat captain has seen the sponge industry struggle in the years since, and the need for a blessing is as strong now as ever, he said.
This year, a local boy who grew up to hold one of the highest positions in the Greek Orthodox religion will come home and bless the half-dozen sponge boats still working.
At 12:30 p.m. today, Metropolitan Nikitas of Hong Kong will work from one end of the docks to the other, blessing each boat and its captain and crew.
The metropolitan -- a church rank between bishop and archbishop -- was born Nikitas Lulias, attended Tarpon Springs High School and retrieved the cross in 1974. Today will be the first time so high-ranking a cleric has blessed the sponge fleet.
Billiris' boat, the St. Nicholas III, has been blessed many times since it was built in 1938. But he will see that it happens again.
"I need to have that boat blessed," he said.
The mariners are religious, but quietly, he said. "We flirt with life and death all the time out there," he said. "We know there is a divine power."
'Come all, receive the spirit of wisdom . . .'
In these times, the message of Epiphany is as much about releasing the past as clinging to it, Theophilopoulos said.
He hopes observers will leave behind the fear and evil of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The message is universal," he said. "The fear is gone."
Monday's Epiphany Day events recreate the baptism of Christ, the first appearance in the Bible of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together. There, as Jesus came up from the water, the Holy Spirit descended in the form a dove, and God's voice came from heaven, saying "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."
At the afternoon cross dive, a white dove is released to symbolize the Holy Spirit. The wooden cross symbolizes Christ entering the baptismal water. The divers symbolize man's search for him, and the one who finds him receives a blessing.
Archbishop Demetrios of America speaks the part of God: "The voice of the Lord thunders over the waters saying, 'Come all receive the spirit of wisdom, the spirt of understanding, the spirit of fear of God, of Christ revealed.' "
On Epiphany Day everyone, Greek or not, receives wisdom, understanding and a renewed reverence, Theophilopoulos said.
"Isn't that something?" he said.
The dove bearer
'The spirit of God descending like a dove . . .'
Kally Elli Flytzanis watched Epiphany from the stroller. She has seen it every year of her life.
When she was old enough, she marched in the Epiphany procession with St. Nicholas' Greek school, where she finished first in her class. She couldn't see the dove bearer from where she marched, but she always imagined her.
Last year, she marched in the parade with her choir, where she is a soprano. She saw the dove bearer, in her white robes, cradling the white bird in two hands.
That could be me, she thought.
This year it will be. She is 13.
Kally, an eighth-grader at Tarpon Springs Middle School, is soft-spoken and a little nervous. The church has always been at the center of her life. She lives so near it she can hear the liturgy from her yard.
"It is a great blessing," she said. "It is the best thing to ever happen to me."
She wonders whether the white robe will fit. She worries about how to hold the bird. She wants the day, and her part in it, to be perfect.
"I'll be holding the Holy Spirit in my hands," she said.
The cross divers
'This is my beloved son . . .'
Some have said the cross seems to glow for the one who finds it.
Kosta Bouris has never seen it glow. He has never seen the cross at all beneath the murky waters. But he has one more chance.
The boy who retrieves the cross and brings it to the surface is blessed for a year, some say for life. Bouris said just to dive for the cross is a blessing.
As his third and last chance gets closer, he and the others imagine how it will unfold, over and over.
"It just plays through your mind," said Bouris, 18.
He clearly remembers the barefoot walk from the church to the bayou. The boys kneel on the steps, their attention divided between the archbishop's prayer and the anticipation of his signal, which sends them scrambling toward the icy shock of the water and clambering onto badly listing boats.
Bouris remembers the suspense as the archbishop blesses the waters, how his shivers surrendered to his surging adrenaline and his pounding heart.
"You look out to all the people, thousands of people, that's just an amazing sight," Bouris said.
Underwater, the divers can see only a foot or two, just churning elbows and feet and foaming water. It lasts just a few seconds.
If you find the cross, it is because God showed you the way, the divers say.
Bouris has imagined that it could be him. What would he do, he wonders. What would he say?
"I can't really explain it," he said. "It would be something I would think about for the rest of my life."
Last year, Achilleas Houllis saw the cross, glowing faintly yellow, before he grabbed it and shot toward the surface.
"Breathtaking," he says.
Tonight, dozens of young men will find it hard to sleep. They will see the dove take flight. The arc of the Archbishop's robed arm. The ferocious froth of the bayou waters.
And the white cross, suspended in the brown water, glowing, perhaps, for them.
-- Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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