Tarpon Springs, Fla. (GreekNewsOnline)
16-year-old Colten Sakadales, a junior at Tarpon Springs High, was this cross dive winner of the 115th Annual Epiphany Celebration that took place in the Spring Bayou, of the little picturesque village founded more than a century ago by Greek sponge divers. His brother was last year’s winner.
The 100-plus-year-old tradition is a day-long affair that is highlighted by local teenage boys diving into Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross thrown into the water by an archbishop. The boy who surfaces with the cross is said to have good luck for the following year. This year, the event, which has been a staple in Tarpon Springs since 1906 and attracts more than 20,000 people to the Greek town every year, looked different on Wednesday, Jan. 6 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the event was closed to spectators for the first time ever due to the pandemic. Officials recently announced they want to avoid a mass-gathering situation as the region tries to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Only 55 divers, ages 16-18, took part in the blessing, and the boys were only allowed to each have two family members there to watch. The divers had to wear a mask leading up to the plunge into the water and were given a new mask to put on immediately after climbing out of the bayou.
It was 16-year-old Colten Sakadales who emerged with the symbolic wooden cross thrown by his Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America. His brother, Hunter, was last year’s victor.
It’s the first time in 115 years that two brothers have retrieved the cross back-to-back.
“My mind just went blank. I was like ‘okay I should probably go and get it.’ I came up and was like ‘is this real?’ I couldn’t even believe it,” Colten Sakadales said adding that the cross seemed to glow underwater.
His older brother Hunter says he screamed out “That’s my brother!” Later, in an interview, he added: “The last blessing of my last year of blessings is that my brother got the cross.”
“The boys have dreamt about this all their lives because their dads have done it. Their grandfathers have done it. There’s so much tradition in retrieving the cross,” said Johanna Kossifidis, spokesperson for St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
The boy who surfaces with the cross is said to have good luck for the following year. The dive is typically followed by an Ephiphany Glendi, a large gathering with food, drinks and live music. But this year, no such gathering could occur.
A few hundred tickets were made available to parishioners. Two family members of each of the 50 divers were allowed to attend. Masks and social distancing was required.
The event celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist.
Archbishop Elpidophoros who travelled from New York for less than a day officiated the ceremony, also attended by Metropolitan Alexios from Atlanta and Bishop Sevastianos.
Addressing the attendance at the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas in Tarpon Springs, Archbishop Elpidophoros said:
Beloved Brothers and Sisters in the Lord,
We continue our rejoicing over the Epiphany of our Lord and the Theophany of our God, here at the Bayou, with the venerable tradition of the Κατάδυσις τοῦ Τιμίου Σταυροῦ – the Immersion of the Holy Cross and its retrieval by one of our exceptional young people.
The Immersion of the Cross – its “baptism,” if you will – is an ancient sign of the universal presence of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross as the animating and quickening essence of the world.
And we have an image of the Cross in the water from the life of the Prophet Elisha.[*]Once, when he was standing by the River Jordan, an ax being used lost its iron head as it flew off the handle and fell into the river. The one who was using the ax asked the prophet for help, as it was borrowed. The ax head itself is a symbol of human life and industry, which is, indeed, borrowed from God and must be returned to Him.
The Prophet Elisha, answering the man’s call, took a piece of wood and cast it in the Jordan, and at once, against every expectation, the ax head floated. Then, Elisha commanded the man: “Lift it up” — Ὕψωσον! [†] And the man recovered it, much as one of you will recover the Cross today.
* * *
My beloved brothers and sisters, and especially our valiant young people waiting for the Cross:
What will it take for each of us to embrace the Cross of the Lord and lift our lives heavenward?
What will it take for us to understand that whatever we build, whatever we achieve, whatever we accomplish in this life, is destined to sink beneath the waves of history? Only the Cross of Christ exalts us and our lives to everlasting meaning and purpose.
We bless these waters today, and we bless your lives with the Cross. And although only one will retrieve the Holy Wood, you are all blessed by its Sacred Immersion today.
Therefore, I call upon all of you to lift up the Cross in your hearts, in your souls, and in your minds. As you dive into the depths to retrieve it, know that Its holy power can lift you up in your every endeavor, to the glory of God and to your eternal salvation.