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Epiphany celebration takes many forms

For the 96th consecutive year, bay-area Greek Orthodox Christians are gearing up for an Epiphany celebration of splendid proportions.

The annual celebration in Tarpon Springs is the most elaborate Eastern Orthodox Epiphany celebration held anywhere in the world with the exception of Greece, said the Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos, dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral in Tarpon Springs.

"This is the focal point of the whole Western Hemisphere outside of Greece," Theophilopoulos said. "Believe me or not, this is it."

For Greek Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Epiphany celebration Wednesday commemorates Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. But for Western Catholic and Protestant churches, Epiphany commemorates something else: the adoration of the infant Jesus by the Magi, astrologers from the East who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Despite the difference, Eastern and Western Epiphany celebrations both focus on the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the world. In fact, the word "epiphany" comes from a Greek word that means "manifestation," "appearance" or "revelation."

"When he was baptized, it was a signaling of a new era for him, the period when he gave his Gospel to the people," Theophilopoulos said. "During his baptism, a voice from heaven came down and said, "This is my Son' . . . and the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove."

Centuries ago, both the birth and the baptism of Jesus were celebrated on Jan. 6. The book Byzantine Daily Worship explains how Dec. 25 eventually became Christmas in the fourth century:

"Later, the birth of Christ came to be celebrated in Rome on Dec. 25, in order to Christianize the feast of the birth of the Invincible Sun. . . . The birth of the Invincible Sun became for Christians the birth of Jesus Christ, the Sun of Justice and Light of the World."

The date Jan. 6 also has pre-Christian origins. A December 1993 press release from the Vatican states: "Much evidence leads us to believe that the choice of Jan. 6, like that of Dec. 25 for the Roman holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, was also influenced by a pagan anniversary. In Alexandria, in fact, on the night between Jan. 5 and 6, pagans used to celebrate the birthday of the god Aeon (god of time and eternity). . . . It would seem that the Church wanted to Christianize this festival."

Today, many churches mark the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive time. Epiphany is sometimes referred to as "Twelfth Night." In fact, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is believed to have premiered on Jan. 6, 1601.

In Eastern churches, holy water is blessed on Jan. 6. In contrast, that ritual is customarily reserved for Holy Saturday, or the day before Easter, in Roman Catholic churches.

St. Nicholas Cathedral in Tarpon Springs will celebrate Epiphany with a service from 8 a.m. to noon Wednesday led by Archbishop Spyridon, spiritual leader of Greek Orthodox Christians in North America and South America. During the Divine Liturgy service, Spyridon will bless water that parishioners may take home. Some people use the water to sanctify their homes, gardens and possessions, and others preserve it for the entire year, partaking of it at times of illness and other personal trials.

The service will be followed by a festive procession to Spring Bayou, where Spyridon will toss a 1-pound wooden cross into the water. Dozens of boys, ages 16 to 18, will dive into the bayou's waters to retrieve the cross, which is believed to bring a year of blessings to the boy who finds it.

The celebration in Tarpon Springs is clearly the granddaddy of local Epiphany events, but several other churches will observe the holiday in different ways. For example, the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Clearwater will have a traditional English Epiphany pageant called the Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival at 4 p.m. Jan. 10.

That celebration will begin with the entrance of a child, representing a yule sprite, who will carry a lighted candle to the altar that represents the light of Christ coming into the world. The festival will continue with a procession of church members in costume as Beefeaters, minstrels, singers, musicians, jesters and Good King Wenceslaus with his page. Participants will act out the story of the Jesus' birth and the visit of the Magi.

The Boar's Head Festival draws on a variety of Christian and pagan customs that made their way to England from Rome and Scandinavia. A festival highlight in medieval times was the moment when a slain boar's head was carried into the church hall. The boar was a symbol of evil, so carrying in the boar's head represented the triumph of Christ over evil.

At the festival in Clearwater, the boar's head will be made out of papier-mache. Cheese, bread, fruit, "olde English beef pie," desserts and wassail will be served. Admission is free. For information, call (727) 447-3469.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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