CLEARWATER — Dozens of people lined the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks Thursday to watch Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias dip a handful of basil leaves into a bowl of holy water, then flick the droplets onto boats, storefronts and people in the traditional blessing of the fleet that precedes this city's annual Epiphany celebration.
Standing among the throng was Anastasios "Taso" Karistinos. A rough economy and several days of bad weather translated into a bad year for Karistinos, a sponge diver since 1971. He left Thursday's ceremony on the docks confident that Nikitas' blessing would grant him safe, prosperous travels in coming months.
"I expect and hope to have a better year," Karistinos said. "We need the help from above if possible."
The blessing of the fleet was the official kickoff for the city's 106th Epiphany celebration. Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
As many as 25,000 locals and visitors are expected to converge today on the city to watch the Epiphany celebration, regarded as one of the largest in the western hemisphere. Father Michael Eaccarino, dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where the celebration is based, said Tarpon is home to an estimated 8,000 Greek Orthodox believers.
His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, arrived in town just before noon Thursday. One of his first stops was a luncheon at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Clearwater.
During a break, he explained that Epiphany and its alternate name, Theophany, literally translate into "revelation" or "the appearance of God." He said the 2,000-year-old Epiphany celebration remains relevant today because it's important for humans to see God in a visible, audible form.
"This is a God that, instead of speaking in a dominating way, he comes in front of us. He humbles himself to show he is really here with us, for us," Demetrios said.
It's also a celebration of the transformation of human nature as well as of the world, said Bishop Sebastian Skordallos of Zela, former dean of Tarpon's St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
"The difficulties, adversities and despairs we have can be transformed in strength, faith and courage. And that's important, especially with the difficult economic times our country is going through," he said.
Today's events begin with an 8 a.m. church service. That will be followed by a procession about 12:30 p.m. to Spring Bayou, where 61 teen boys are slated to dive for a cross as part of a tradition that represents a rite of passage into manhood as well as an expression of their faith.
For more than 100 years, local Greek Orthodox boys have lined the banks of the bayou with their families to watch older brothers, cousins and friends dive. Growing up, they jump into family pools, pretending to go after the cross.
But the faithful know there is no physical training that will prepare them. And there is no luck involved.
"The person who retrieves the cross, I believe, is destined to have gotten it. They've been destined to retrieve it," said dive co-coordinator Michael Kouskoutis.
Added Eaccarino: "So many times we hear people talk about luck. This isn't luck. It's not gambling. This is the blessings of the Lord."
"(The blessings) don't fade away. It stays with the person to the end of his life," said Archbishop Demetrios, adding that the dive and its aftermath is an event that fosters unity and cooperation. He said the cross stays with the retriever's family as a source of inspiration, faith, courage and hope.
The boys take classes in religious instruction in the months leading up to the dive.
"We wanted to make sure the kids have some sort of orientation or catechism to understand the purpose of the event, that it is not a sporting event," said Kouskoutis. "It's actually part of a religious service that is symbolic to the baptism of Christ."
Twins Edward and Nick Tabus will be diving for their second year.
The brothers, both 17 and seniors at Tarpon Springs High School, said there's absolutely no competition between them over the dive.
"I would be just as happy, if not more happy, if he got it," Nick Tabus said of his brother. "Of course I'd be happy if I got it. But, I kind of feed off other people's happiness, so seeing my brother, it's like, not just pride for myself, but pride for my brother, my family."
Nick Tabus said he takes seriously his role in bringing the "beauty of the Greek Orthodox services and traditions" to the rest of the world on Epiphany.
"It's just a feeling, when you dive in those waters, that you can't explain," Edward Tabus said. "Hopefully, one day, my children will be able to dive for the cross," he said.
Miros Petru, another second-year diver, said the experience is simultaneously "exciting and nerve-wracking."
"Above all, I remember that diving is a blessing to everybody, whether you're a cross retriever or not," said Petru, 17.
Kathy Kaburis, 52, of Land O'Lakes looks forward to the day her son Mihail, now 14, can participate in the dive.
The pair visited the Sponge Docks for Thursday's blessing of the fleet. They'll be back today.
"It's a special time," Kaburis said.
Times photojournalist Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report. Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.