The Epiphany celebration held each Jan. 6 in Tarpon Springs is supposed to be a spiritual event. In the Greek Orthodox faith, it marks the observance of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
Some people, apparently, haven't gotten that message.
This year's event took some bizarre and twisted turns that made it one for the record books.
For the first time in its 106-year history, four teen boys were declared winners in the annual cross dive in the city's Spring Bayou, where tradition holds that the victor gets a special blessing from God.
This isn't necessarily a case of the more the merrier, however. Whether all four boys deserve the blessing is a discussion that continues in the Greek-American community.
First, a recap. After a blessing on the dock and the release of a dove (representing the Holy Spirit), Archbishop Demetrios threw a blessed cross in the water. Sixty-one Greek teens, ages 16-18, dived in to retrieve it. About seven minutes later, when no one could find it in the murky waters, the archbishop threw in another cross.
Alexi Lake swam to it first and grabbed it. Then in a matter of seconds, he was pushed under water by several other teens. (He would later be treated for exhaustion and hypothermia by nearby emergency medical technicians.) Finally, Louis Malisand came from the left and got a hold of it and held it high in the air.
But wait! There's more! After Louis was carried to the cathedral on the shoulders of some of the boys, another group came in, hoisting a second boy with another cross. Turns out, this was Miros Petru, his cousin, who had finally retrieved the first cross. Double blessing!
You think it's over, but it's not. About three hours later, organizers declared that Jared Alissandratos also had his hand on the second cross at some point.
And three days after that, several photos taken at the moment of contact confirmed that Alexi was indeed the first to touch that second cross. Winner No. 4 joins the group.
It was my 16th year covering Epiphany. From a very close vantage point on the dock, I witnessed the madness in the water and afterward. I didn't see a lot of spirituality that day. But I did see a lot of backbiting, complaining and bullying.
The Rev. Stavros Akrotirianakis of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa was clearly displeased about what he witnessed.
"I saw divers held underwater by other divers, saw punches thrown, saw the scuba diver move in to break up the tussle for the second cross, heard foul language," he posted last week on his Facebook page. "I left the bayou very sad."
Bravo for Father Stavros for making his comments public. Several angry people contacted me, then refused to give their names. They were mad enough to rant, but not to step forward. "This is a tight-knit community, and I'd rather not get involved," one told me.
So how will things change if you don't come forward with your criticisms and suggestions on how to improve procedures?
Father Stavros says he doesn't want his church to be known as a place with a "Greek festival and awesome food." He's proud of his faith and its rich traditions. Diving for the cross, he says, should not be a matter of pride for the community or the culture. It isn't a competition.
It is "supposed to be a witness for one's faith," he says. What he saw didn't come close to that.
In the future, Father Stavros said, he would like order restored. He thinks the participating boys should be carefully screened, so they have a greater sense of meaning and purpose in what they are doing. He would like the winner to become an ambassador for the church for the year, the way Miss America uses her crown to promote a platform. He wonders how many boys would apply to dive if it came with that obligation.
If it's a smaller group, so be it, he says. At least the ones who do participate will be taking the honor to dive more seriously, and for the right reasons.
As for Alexi, the boy who never got a proper post-dive celebration? Don't worry about him. His parents, Eleftheria and Thomas, are hosting a big party for him at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Greek House in Holiday. The space was donated, as well as the services of a local DJ. His mother says the party will celebrate Alexi's upcoming 17th birthday and "the joy of life for all."
"Some happiness was stolen from him that day," she says. "It was a process, but we've moved past that now. It was just a moment, not something worth dwelling on. And so much good has come from it.
"We know in our hearts he was blessed by God that day. All the manmade attention doesn't matter."
You can be sure this is one Epiphany that Alexi will not forget.
We shouldn't forget this Epiphany, either. It's time to reflect on changes to ensure that its real meaning takes center stage.