TARPON SPRINGS — Between choir, college classes, teaching dance and volunteering, Anna Athanasatos has a full platter. But the 20-year-old will gladly cram one more task onto her plate: Dove bearer in Tarpon Springs' 106th Epiphany celebration.
It just may be the sweetest treat she's ever had.
"It means so much to me because it's another way to be involved with the church and the ceremony," said Athanasatos of Tarpon Springs.
Tarpon is home to one of the largest Epiphany celebrations in the world, headlined by the blessing and throwing of the cross into Spring Bayou. Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
This year's event takes place Friday. Thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians are expected to watch as about 60 teen boys dive for a white cross in the bayou. According to the custom, the one who retrieves the cross is guaranteed blessings and favor from the Lord.
But first, the dove bearer walks in a half-mile procession from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral to the bayou. She kicks off the dive by releasing a white dove, which represents the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Each year, the church bestows the honor on one young woman, usually high school or college age. Typically, she is unmarried, academically successful and active in the church.
"I usually choose one of the very devoted and outstanding members of the choir," said Katie Faklis, St. Nicholas' choir director since 1971. "Anna has been that, plus other involvement she's had in the church community. She's a great girl."
In addition to choir, Athanasatos' church activities include volunteering with the Philoptochos, a group that helps the needy; teaching with a Greek dance ministry; participating in a young adult ministry; and lending her soprano voice to the Byzantine choir, which performs a more traditional Orthodox style of music than the church's regular choir.
Outside of church, Athanasatos, a University of South Florida junior majoring in social work, mentors children through Tarpon Springs Middle School's Open Doors program.
Athanasatos said she's watched several of her best friends act as dove bearer over the years.
She's a little nervous about carrying a 2-year-old female homing pigeon — the same bird from last year — because she "definitely" doesn't like being the center of attention.
But most of all, Athanasatos is excited about being involved in a ceremony with such a storied past.
"It's really special because of the symbolism behind the dove," she said. "When the boys dive in, it represents Jesus being baptized. And when the dove is released, it's that moment when the sky is open and God is looking to reveal himself and honor his son being baptized.
"Just to be a part of that moment is definitely rewarding and fascinating on its own."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.