The 113th annual celebration of the Baptism of Jesus Christ by St. John the Baptist in the River Jordan was celebrated on Sunday, January 6, 2019 at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida. A procession to the Spring Bayou commenced immediately following the church service for the Blessing of the Waters and Cross retrieval.
His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta, were among the participants in this year’s observance.
“This Holy Event is not merely a yearly symbolic re-enactment but a ‘real time’ transformation of nature. Therefore, people in the Tarpon Springs area, become recipients of the true metamorphosis of their environment,” said the Reverend Fr. Athanasios Haros, Dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Leading up to the feast day, the Blessing of the Fleet took place on Saturday, January 5th at noon. Reverend Father Sampson Kasapakis and clergy blessed the fisherman, their vessels, and the water in which they travel, and wish them safe and prosperous journeys. The service occured at the Sponge Docks on the Anclote River, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. Both commercial fishermen and recreational boaters participated.
On January 6th, Epiphany observances began at 8 AM with Orthros (Matins) followed by the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral at 10 AM.
Following the Divine Liturgy and Great Blessing of the waters, Archbishop Demetrios, hierarchs, clergy, dignitaries and thousands of people formed an impressive procession to Spring Bayou, with schoolchildren in traditional costumes, choir members, and Greek Folk dance groups from throughout the Tampa Bay Area. There, an invocation was recited, and a young lady, Stella Bilirakis, 15, released a white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit to fly over the Bayou. The Archbishop cast a white cross into the water and 58 young men dove for the cross, each seeking the honor of retrieving it.
Ilias Skandaliaris, 17, of Tarpon Springs, the young man who retrieved the cross, then knelt with it before the Archbishop for a blessing.
The Greek-born Skandaliaris who moved to Tarpon Springs with his family at the age of 3 and had tears in his eyes after retrieving the cross, the Tampa Bay Times reported, said, “I feel like it’s a dream, everything is a blur, everything is fast, everything is love.”
Following the ceremony, an Epiphany Glendi (festival) was held at Craig Park with food prepared by Louis Pappas Fresh Greek, drink, live music and dancing. There was also traditional Greek dancing performed by the Levendia, the nationally award-winning Greek dance troupe in addition to children’s games and activities.
His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios at the Glendi honored the Epiphany divers and the cross victor and divers were there throughout the day’s festivities.
Only boys, ages 16 to 18, are allowed to dive for the cross in Tarpon Springs. Following his victory, Skandaliaris was hoisted on the shoulders of the other boys who chanted, “Axios!” the Times reported, adding that about 22,000 people attended the event, according to spokesperson Johanna Kossifidis.
Skandaliaris told the Times that the honor of retrieving the cross was “Indescribable, I never thought I would have this moment.”