How an Orthodox celebration, Greek tradition and a Bayou dive led to a revelation of faith
The girl strokes the dove with one of her thumbs. The bird may have tussled against her hands initially but has become acclimated to its perch and surveys the crowd with a beady pink eye. Each year a different girl is chosen to carry the dove in the procession from St. Nicholas Cathedral to Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs, Fla. The teenager wears a white lace-trimmed robe over her dress and a simple Greek cross around her neck. Ribbons tied to a ring on one of her fingers cascade from her cupped hands, making a waterfall tail for the bird. Inside the cathedral, everyone is dressed to the nines—everyone except for the rows of high school boys in the front of the church wearing “Epiphany 2018” T-shirts and swim trunks.
A few blocks away, at the bayou, Craig Park is already packed. Lawn chairs have been unfolded onto the sloped lawns and paved walkway circling the water. Blankets and coolers are spread under live oaks, whose branches drip Spanish moss. A manatee appears in the water every few minutes, its tremendous backside surfacing as it turns. Fourteen thousand people have come to Tarpon Springs this year—fewer than expected because of the severe blizzard that canceled flights up and down the East Coast. The day began hours ago for Greek Orthodox Christians, with 8 a.m. prayers and Divine Liturgy, followed by the Great Blessing of the Waters at noon. Those in Craig Park missed all this. Epiphany may be a religious feast, but most have come to this small Florida city, said to be home to America’s largest Epiphany celebration, to see the boys dive into the bayou. As is customary in the Greek Orthodox tradition, the bishop will bless the water with a holy cross, which he throws into the water. The swimmers will compete to retrieve the cross, and for the blessings that the winner is thought to receive for finding it. But before that happens, the procession must take place.
As I wait for the procession to begin outside the church, I listen as chanting unfurls from a loudspeaker near the cathedral. The Greek Orthodox liturgy sounds exotic and faraway—like the soaring human voice in the Islamic call to prayer braided with strands of the Roman Mass and incense smoke. I sip coffee and stand in a patch of sun, waiting for the procession to begin.
“Happy Epiphany!” calls out the man on a street corner who holds a sign proclaiming the need to repent and be saved. The radio beside him blares evangelical hymns. His music is outmatched by the cathedral loudspeaker, but coupled with the sign, seems an act of minor aggression. “Happy Epiphany,” I say back.
The street preacher is one of the few shouting greetings in English. Greek is the language of choice in Tarpon Springs today. Chrónia Pollá! (Happy Returns!) says a father with two young children as he passes. Chrónia Pollá! A clutch of women returns the holiday greeting. In their mid-60s or so, they link arms and laugh as they push down Pinellas Avenue. Two men sipping coffee at an outside table could have been lifted from a street scene in Athens. At the hotel coffee stand this morning, greetings of “Kaliméra” (“Good Day!”) outranked “Good Morning” two to one.
Tarpon Springs is home to the largest percentage of Greeks than any other city in the United States, and locals stand out because they wear hats and winter coats. Those from more northerly locations wear spring jackets. A few tourists brave sandals and shorts. Welcome to Florida in early January, where the region you have flown in from dictates how cold or warm you will feel. This January is chillier than most, with deep freezes as far south as Tallahassee. There are reports of iguanas so cold they have fallen from trees. Leave them be, newspaper articles advise; they can be unpredictable when they thaw.
Sometime after noon, the procession begins. Children parade by in Greek fustanellas (a traditional skirt) and shoes adorned with pom-poms, followed by dancers in folk dresses and veils. The dove-bearer walks beside last year’s winning diver. The Epiphany divers march by, all new muscle and bare feet. An icon of the Baptism of Jesus is surrounded by flowers and displayed in a carved box hoisted onto seminarians’ shoulders. Girls in white dresses are tethered to the box by ribbons and circle it like a maypole. Altar boys carry censers and candles, lanterns and ornate liturgical fans. Next come the clerics: priests, deacons and subdeacons—all in gold cloaks—followed by the Metropolitan of Atlanta. Layered in richly embroidered vestments, the bishop’s brocade crown is studded with gemstones and a series of small icons. With his full white beard and gold crozier, he looks like a solemn, gilded Santa Claus.
Once they reach Craig Park, the bishop stands on a raised platform overlooking the water as the boys—57 of them this year—swim out to a semi-circle of boats. The rounded end of Spring Bayou is the size of a small lake. The boys climb onto the gunwales as the bishop blesses the bayou with a clump of fresh basil dipped in water consecrated earlier in the church, and a priest chants the story of Christ’s baptism. Those who had been inside the church for five hours must have to summon their patience, but the sound of prayer is new to the people in the park, who look up from their lawn chairs and do not seem to mind how long it goes on. Eventually, the sign is given. The girl opens her hands and the dove flies away.
Spring Bayou is not deep, but as they waited for the bishop to toss the cross, all 57 boys looked prepared to jump off the edge of the earth.
The bishop tosses a scalloped white cross into the bayou. The boys plunge in. Everyone cheers as the great ruckus and foam gives way to the sight of heads bobbing in the water. The boys go under, again and again, in search of the cross, since tradition says whoever finds it will receive blessings for an entire year. After a few minutes, a boy shouts out, victorious, and looks like a young Marlon Brando as he is first blessed by the Metropolitan Bishop, then lifted onto shoulders and taken up by the crowd.
The sight of young men leaping into the bayou is strangely moving. I did not expect my breath to catch as I stood under a live oak watching. Even more impressive was the way they had perched before they jumped, four or five to a boat. They shivered in wet trunks for the duration of the prayers. They must have been at least as tired as the rest of us, but every last boy bent forward the whole time, poised and waiting, everything in him wound up and ready to leap. Spring Bayou is not deep, but as they waited for the bishop to toss the cross, all 57 boys looked prepared to jump off the edge of the earth.
Feast of the Epiphany
Also called Theophany, Epiphany is one of the great feasts of the Orthodox Church and celebrates the visible manifestation of God. The central image is of John the Baptist pouring water over Jesus on the banks of the Jordan while the Holy Spirit descends and God calls out his pleasure from above. By contrast, The Roman Catholic observance of Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi to the infant Jesus, and their recognition and adoration of his divinity has become our iconic image. In the early days of the church, the Roman observance of Epiphany also commemorated the Baptism of Jesus, but Rome eventually assigned the Gospel events to separate feast days. Perhaps that is why, in much of the United States, Epiphany can seem like a liturgical footnote.
Of course, there are homilies inspired by the journey of the wise men, their faith in heading toward a mysterious light and the precious gifts they bore. Occasionally local customs mark the day. My parish priest up in Rochester, N.Y., for instance, invites three parishioners to don robes and crowns and stand with him during Mass—the trio of kingly shadows representing Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar following Fr. Werth’s every move. Later, he uses chalk to bless the church with an inscription of the Magis’ initials (20+C+M+B+18). The crosses are thought to symbolize Christ, and the final number denotes the year, hovering like an ecclesiastical math problem over the lintel.
Certain cultural groups also embrace the day. When I was a child, my Puerto Rican friends left out grass for the Magi’s camels on El Día de los Reyes (Three Kings Day) and were rewarded with small gifts. Along parts of the Gulf Coast, people eat King Cake on Epiphany to mark the start of Mardi Gras season; and around the country, Epiphany is often used as a marker to take down holiday lights, garlands and trees. But, apart from the Magi in their nativity sets or a homily at church, most American Catholics do not appear to consider the kings much at all, and Epiphany is a quiet day. Perhaps that is why I love it.
I like the word itself, and the way that, in a literary sense, it has come to stand for culminations of sound and image—bursts of revelation conveyed by what seems, at first glance, a sort of beautiful gibberish. I also enjoy the way the word refers, in a larger sense, to those unexpected flashes of meaning and light most of us have experienced, and the way that, whether it celebrates Jesus’ baptism or a group of seers following a faraway star, Epiphany celebrates a manifestation of the divine, and is a sort of hushed Christmas. The pomp and bang of the winter holidays with all the glitter and expectation is gone. The air is still. Northern fields are covered with snow. Just as the world gathers itself back into the grind, resuming its steady forward chug, here comes a day to remind us of the openheartedness, leaps of faith and little awakenings awaiting us all.
True faith—like jumping into a bayou or hopping on a camel and following a faraway star—cannot be done halfway.
Maybe that is why I decided to travel to Tarpon Springs, the small Florida city that calls itself Epiphany City. I had returned to church a few years before, but even as I had relearned my prayers, it was a shock to my system and I still struggled to understand what propelled me there. Why head back to the same church most everyone I knew had abandoned, especially when there seemed valid reasons for leaving? Why swim against the stream? Such lingering questions must be why, when I heard about the massive Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs, I made plans to head south. What might happen, I wondered, in such a place?
Moment of Manifestation
Back in Tarpon Springs, the crowd splits up after the Epiphany dive. The boys dry off in special-edition Epiphany towels, and after a series of blessings and photographs, return with their families to St. Nicholas’s courtyard for food and dancing. The more secular crowd bypass church and head out for meals of dolmades and crab-stuffed grouper at one of the tavernas, followed by baklava and Greek coffee. Later they will stroll the sponge docks, traipsing past palm trees strung with lights, walking into souvenir shops laden with baskets of sand dollars and dried alligator heads; conch and lightning whelk shells and all manner of sea sponges.
Once the city’s bread and butter, sponge diving is what originally brought Greeks to the city back in 1905. They dived to find natural sponges they could cut and sell. Within a few years, 2,000 Greek divers had arrived, fishing so successfully along the Anclote River and the Florida Gulf that long before it was known as Epiphany City, Tarpon Springs was called the Sponge Capital of the World.
The industry came to a halt when sponge beds died out and the synthetic sponge was developed, but the Greek influence continues to shape the town. A plywood warrior towers over the Hellas Bakery, complete with Corinthian helmet, hoplon and spear. A mural on the corner of Hope Street and Dodecanese features a diver in a portaled metal helmet—like something out of Jules Verne, an underwater spaceman with a mermaid floating over his right shoulder. A boat laden with sponges looks like those I have seen in the Aegean—which makes sense, since most local Greek families immigrated from islands whose economies depended for centuries on sponge-fishing.
Said to be the best in the world, Greek divers started their efforts before the advent of modern diving equipment. The divers leapt into the ocean with only rope and a 30-pound marble slab. Known as a skandalopetra, the stone propelled the diver into the depths, where he cut away sponges, deposited them into a net, then yanked the rope to be pulled back to the surface by its tender—all while holding his breath.
The boys who jumped into the bayou are descended from this tradition. They have heard stories told and retold of great-grandfathers and uncles who held smooth flat stones to their chests, said a silent prayer, then tumbled into the sea.
I am tempted by the prospect of bakeries but decide against the sponge docks and trail the crowd heading back to the cathedral. I walk up the steps, make a donation and take a bundle of white tapers. The church is all light and arches and Byzantine murals. Icons strung with votive offerings and vigil lanterns decorate one side of the sanctuary. Chandeliers of Czech crystal hang from the ceiling and the altar is fashioned of Greek marble, but even with its stained glass and gilded trimmings, the domed cathedral seems elegant and spare. I follow the line of people shuffling past the icon of St. Nicholas, who is said to weep, into and through the church, and eventually end up back where I started in the narthex near the candle stand. An older Greek woman watches as people light their tapers, bow their heads and move on. Most hand the tiny woman their candles to place in the sand-filled stand. Hundreds of candles burn, with a nonstop line of people waiting to add more. The woman is needed, I see, to manage the limited plot of space.
I light the tapers and hand a few to her but keep two to place on my own. I can feel the line shifting behind me and do not like to hold it up, but when will I ever stand in this place again? I look into the lit candles and think of the boys in swimming trunks and the legions of divers who came before them. I think of my unexpected return to church, which I had accepted and come to see as a gift, even as I struggled to understand. I place a candle in the stand and imagine a cool, flat stone fitting itself to my chest. A skandalopetra, like the ones divers used to propel themselves to the depths. I can almost feel myself tethered to a rope—one I had not noticed before but perhaps have been weaving over the past few years. It is suddenly clear to me—after all the worrying and weighing and wondering—how cautiously I have proceeded on this journey back to church.
I have once again fallen in love with the Mass, yes, and re-explored tradition with newly appreciative eyes, but I have been tentative all the while. Though I had delighted in the subtlety of the Catholic observance of Epiphany and admired the bravery of the wise men for as long as I can remember, I had not truly taken their example to heart. It has taken a trip to Florida, a Greek Orthodox celebration and witnessing a bunch of boys plunging into a bayou to make me fully grasp that when it comes to faith, I have barely gotten my feet wet.
True faith—like jumping into a bayou or hopping on a camel and following a faraway star—cannot be done halfway. It is not only what you believe but what you do with those beliefs, and it is called faith precisely because it doesn’t entirely make sense. It requires letting go. You must be daring and a little reckless and occasionally abandon the overused helmet of your head. And just as there is no perfect time to tumble into the ocean or leave the comfort of home to set out toward a mysterious source of light, there is also no perfect church. There is no perfect anything, of course, which is why devotion cannot depend on circumstance. I understand this, at least in theory—but how often do I scrutinize others, find myself disappointed, and use this as an excuse to succumb to the waxy spell of indifference and my finely honed capacity for walking away? Standing here in Tarpon Springs I finally understand that while I had physically returned to church, my fear and longing for rational explanation had kept me from fully immersing myself into the spiritual life.
The line behind me once again tenses and shifts. The candle lady narrows her eyes, as if trying to fathom how a person can be so slow in the lighting and placement of tapers. But on this holy feast of Epiphany in the city of Epiphany, this is my moment of epiphany. I am standing among the flickering candles of St. Nicholas, yes, but as I place my last taper into the sand and get ready to move on, I feel as if I am perched on the edge of a boat. I can nearly make out the scent of basil and the flutter of wings as I imagine the bishop tossing a cross into Spring Bayou. I see the water open wide before me, and, after all this time, I feel everything in me pushing forward, finally ready to dive in.