Epiphany event draws a crowd of thousands

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartolomew blesses Jack Vasilaros after he found the cross in the bayou.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
TARPON SPRINGS - Jack Vasilaros stood wet and shivering in St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral Friday, grasping in one hand a trophy and in the other a wooden cross he had just retrieved from the chilly waters of a bayou a few blocks away.
The 16-year-old 10th grader from nearby Clearwater Beach had just become an instant celebrity in this heavily Greek-American community by being the first of more than 50 teen boys to emerge from the 64-degree water with the Epiphany cross as thousands cheered from the sloping banks of Spring Bayou.
"It's going to change my life forever," Vasilaros said, as his father draped a leather jacket over his shoulders to stop his teeth from chattering. "I don't know what it's going to bring, but the memory will stay with me forever."
What it brought immediately for the boy was a special blessing from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 200 million-plus Orthodox Christians, who traveled from his headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey, for the 100th annual Epiphany celebration here.
Equal parts religious ceremony and community festival, the celebration every Jan. 6 marks the day that Orthodox Christians believe Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River . It's grown to be the largest Orthodox Epiphany event in North America and the signature festival for Tarpon Springs, a town of about 24,000 residents that regularly attracts tourists to its working sponge docks and many Greek restaurants.
This year's Epiphany crowd - treated to sunny skies and temperatures around 60 degrees - was estimated at more than 50,000.
"We salute you for your steadfastness in maintaining the faith of your ancestral tradition, as well as your love for the beautiful, spiritual, cultural and folk traditions in which you reverently persevere," Bartholomew said in his morning liturgy, delivered in Greek. "Truly it is out of respect and love for the memory of your forebears that you have clung to your ecclesiastical and ancestral customs."
At Spring Bayou the boys, all between 16 and 18 and clad in swim trunks and white T-shirts, waited in 10 small boats as Bartholomew blessed the waters and tossed the white cross. After about 15 seconds of swimming and chaotic flailing of arms and legs, Vasilaros broke the surface with his prize held high.
"When I saw it I grabbed on to it so tight," he said, recalling stories about boys before him who had picked up the cross and then dropped it.
Vasilaros was carried into the cathedral on the shoulders of two of his fellow divers. For 18-year-old Billy Stamas, it was the third time he had delivered the cross-bearer on his shoulders. He said it was an honor, even though he failed to retrieve the cross in each of the three years and would no longer be eligible to participate.
"It's divine intervention," Stamas said. "If God wants you to have it, you will have it."
On Saturday, Bartholomew will make a quick trip to New Orleans, where he is scheduled to be joined by Roman Catholic Archbishop Alfred Hughes for a visit to flood-damaged areas of the Lower Ninth Ward.
Afterward, Bartholomew will conduct a brief Doxology, a service of thanksgiving, at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, badly damaged and flooded in the hurricane.

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