Tarpon Springs, Fla. – (GreekNewsOnline, TampaBay.com)
Photos: Dimitrios Panagos
Third time was luck for a 18-year-old Tarpon Springs High School senior, who retrieved the ceremonial cross out of Spring Bayou during the 2017 Epiphany Celebration on Friday, Jan. 6. Joseph Cooley brought the cross to the surface minutes after he and other area boys in the Greek Orthodox community made the leap into the waters off of Tarpon Springs. This was the third and final year Cooley, a, participated in the celebration.
His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios Geron of America headed the festivities surrounding the Feast of Theophany, the Feast of Lights, which is traditionally celebrated by the large Greek Orthodox Community of St. Nicholas Cathedral in the Epiphany City with thousands of faithful in attendance.
Archbishop Demetrios presided at the Hierarchal Divine Liturgy with the host Hierarch, Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta, Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, Bishop Sevastianos of Zela and Bishop Cyril of Abydos concelebrating, while assisted by more than a dozen clergy.
The guest of honor at the festivities was the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece Terence Quick, who is visiting the U.S. and is in charge of affairs concerning Greeks abroad.
Following the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the Archbishop led the service of the Great Agiasmos, the sanctification of the waters and the blessing of the faithful with holy water. The service is truly a holy event during which the Holy Spirit sanctifies the water and those faithful who partake of it.
The traditional procession to Spring Bayou formed outside the Cathedral. School children in traditional costumes, choir members, Greek Folk dance groups from throughout the Tampa Bay Area, the hierarchs, clergy, altar boys, dignitaries and thousands of people comprised an impressive mosaic. Several thousand people had already gathered around the scenic cove of Spring Bayou. More than forty young men, ages 16-18 years-old knelt and received the blessing of Archbishop Demetrios just before they they ran and jumped in the water, struggling to get their place in one of the dinghies forming a semi-circle in the bayou. Following the reading of the Gospel the Archbishop threw the white wooden cross into the water. The boys dove and shortly after 18-year-old Joseph Cooley emerged holding the white cross in his hand raised it above the water.
Cooley and his family attend St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and have for years.
Cooley is involved with youth groups and other organizations at the church.
“I feel awesome, there’s no way to describe it,” Cooley said moments are retrieving the cross.
Cooley was carried back to the church, where the celebration continued.
Dozens came from all over for the celebration.
Theo Vavlas traveled from Greece. It was his first time witnessing Epiphany in Tarpon Springs.
“I’m so excited to see because never in my life I see like this,” he said.
Vavlas’s nephew, Bobby, also sat on the banks of the Bayou to watch. Bobby also participated in Epiphany when he was in high school.
“Coming over here to see the younger kids and the younger generations to carry it on, it means a lot to us,” he said.
Following the ceremony, an Epiphany Glendi (festival) with food, drink, live music and dancing was held at the St Nicholas Community Center.
There were also of traditional Greek dancing performed by the Levendia, the nationally award winning Greek dance troupe, as well, as other local and national dance groups. At the Glendi, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios honored the Epiphany divers and the cross victor.
“In the old country, Jesus Christ’s baptismal day was celebrated with spiritual emotion and long procession,” the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks website states. “Following tradition, the Greek community established that January the 6th of each year will be celebrated with the sanctification of the waters and the immersion of the cross in the Spring Bayou on ‘Cross Day’ or ‘Epiphany’.”
Among the many dignitaries present were: Cyprus Ambassador to the U.S. Leonidas Pantelidis, Consul General of Greece in Tampa, Fla. Admantia Klotsa, the Mayor of Tarpon Springs Chris Alahouzos, the Mayor of Clearwater Fla. George Cretekos, the Mayors of Kalymnos Ioannis Galouzis and of Halki Mihalis Patros, AHEPA Supreme President Andrew Zachariades, former Congressman Michael Bilirakis, Commander in the Hellenic Navy Ioannis Tzifas, and many others.
The day before, Jan. 5, 2017, His Grace Bishop Sevastianos of Zela, the Chief Secretary of the Holy Eparchial Synod, officiated at the Blessing of the waters, and the fleet at the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs. His Grace also blessed the stores, the owners and the visitors on the picturesque Dodecanese Blvd.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis shared a video tribute to honor annual Epiphany commemoration and cross dive. Bilirakis represents Florida’s 12th Congressional District, which includes Tarpon Springs.
Below is the text of Bilirakis’ message, which is also available online.
“Good afternoon, today is Epiphany Day, Jan. 6. We have a large celebration, the biggest celebration of Epiphany in the Western Hemisphere, and it takes place in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful day symbolizing the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, but also the manifestation of God. I want to wish everyone well, and I want to congratulate the Cross Retriever, Joseph Cooley.
“I happen to know him and his family, they’re wonderful people. Joseph actually was an alter boy in the church growing up. He’s got a tremendous family. I know his mother and his grandmother, and I know they’re so very proud of him.
“Hopefully I’ll be with you next year, but I have to fulfill my duties here in Washington, D.C. God bless everyone. Xronia Polla!”
THE AHEPA DINNER
In the evening, Archbishop Demetrios, following his arrival, attended the Annual AHEPA Epiphany Banquet in Tarpon Springs along with all the aforementioned hierarchs and dignitaries. The Local AHEPA chapter presented to Archbishop Demetrios a contribution for the rebuilding of St. Nicholas at Ground Zero.
Supreme President Andrew Zachariades addressed the Ahepa dinner in honor of Epiphany celebrations. Members of the Tarpon Ahepa and Daughters donated to Ahepa fundraising to rebuild St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox at ground Zero.
During the event, Mayor of Tarpon Springs (and Ahepa member) Chris Alahouzos awarded Ambassador Leonidas Pantelides of Cyprus the official seal of the city on his visit to Tarpon
The Cypriot Ambassador awarded former US Congressman Mike Bilirakis the Presidential Medal of the Republic of Cyprus for his long service and fights for the freedom of the island.