TARPON SPRINGS — She doesn’t understand the words in the Divine Liturgy and in the traditional Greek blessings that will be recited for hours starting at 8 a.m. Monday in St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s 108th annual Epiphany celebration, but 16-year-old Joanna Theophilopoulos, or Joi, knows the significance behind her faith.
She sees it in the actions of her family, a pillar of the Tarpon Springs community and longtime fixtures at St. Nicholas.
She feels it in the familial presence of the parishioners, who will call her mother if they see Joi with someone they don’t recognize and who offered support to the family after the death of her grandfather, the Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos, who led the Greek church and community for 30 years.
She owns it when she joins her peers for classes and volunteer work to prepare for the huge job of taking their parents’ place in carrying the Epiphany tradition forward for future generations.
What she will learn Monday is how it feels to stand beside Spring Bayou, holding the dove that symbolizes the Holy Spirit, before 45 teenage boys dive into the water to retrieve a wooden cross. Joi was chosen by church leaders this year to release the dove just before the boys dive.
“I wouldn’t know the feeling yet, but they say when you’ve been holding the dove for more than an hour or two, worrying about making sure it doesn’t fly away, that when it finally comes time to release it you get this amazing, enlightening feeling,” Joi said.
The Tarpon Springs Epiphany celebration is expected to draw thousands to Spring Bayou for the noontime cross diving and the traditional Greek Orthodox celebration and commemoration of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
The boys dive as a “leap of faith” in hopes of finding the cross in the bayou and earning a holy blessing for the year, said Johanna Kossifidis, Epiphany co-chairman.
Though the cross dive is the heart of the event, the largest of its kind in the Western hemisphere, the dove bearer plays one of the most important roles in the religious ceremony, Kossifidis said.
Each year one girl, usually a choir member who has shown outstanding dedication to her faith and the church, is selected to release the dove. It’s an amazing honor that would have left Joi’s grandfather grinning from ear-to-ear, said her mother, Ellyn Theophilopoulos. But it does come with some concerns.
“I asked if they had any backup doves just in case it flew away, and they said, ‘no,’ ” Ellyn said. “We have our big cockatoo on standby.”
Previous dove bearers told Joi to make sure she rubs the dove’s back, holds it lightly but firmly, and remains calm. But it’s times like these, when she has to explain the significance of Epiphany to her non-Greek friends and dwells on the symbolism of her role, that Joi, a junior and aspiring journalist at Tarpon Springs High School, wishes her grandfather were around for guidance. He died in 2005.
“I was only 8 when he died, but I remember how he was the happiest person ever. I never saw him unhappy,” Joi said. “He would always explain to us what the Greek liturgies meant, answer our questions, and he just loved to be around people and helping others. He always wore a big smile.”
Everything in the Greek community, from families and friends to faith, is big, and Epiphany is no exception. Whether visitors swamp the small community looking for a holy experience or simply to join in the giant party, or “Glendi,” for food, drink, live music and dancing in the St. Nicholas Community Center after the ceremony, Joi said she knows the blessings said to come with participation in Epiphany are real.
“It isn’t necessarily good luck, but I definitely know God will be looking out for them,” Joi said. “I absolutely feel blessed.”
If you go
What: The 108th annual St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church Epiphany festival
When: Church Ephpihany Liturgy, 8 a.m. Monday, followed by cross diving at noon.
Where: Liturgy at St. Nicholas, 36 N. Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs. Cross diving will be at Spring Bayou.
Also: “Glendi” festival, 12:30 to 6 p.m., with food, drink, live music and dancing at the St. Nicholas Community Center, 348 N. Pinellas Ave.
All events are free and open to the public.