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Epiphany: One of Christianity’s Most Important Feasts

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Greek Orthodox bishop at the Great Blessing of Waters on Theophany, throwing the cross off the Glenelg Jetty, South Australia, for one of the swimmers below to retrieve. Credit: Maggas/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 3.0

Traditionally, the great feast of the Epiphany marks the end of the extended period of Christmas holidays in Greece.

Each year on January 6, hundreds of thousands of Greeks and visitors participate in the rich traditions that are observed in each and every city and town in the country, making it one of the most special holidays of the year.

What is Epiphany?

“The Adoration of the Magi” tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones (1904). Western Christians traditionally commemorate the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child on Epiphany. Credit: Public domain

Epiphany is one of the most important Christian feasts of the entire year because it is the commemoration of the revelation of Jesus Christ as God.

Epiphany is also known as Theophany; both of these terms derive from the Greek words for “revelation” and the “revelation of God,” or ”Επιφάνεια” (epipháneia) and ”Θεοφάνεια” (Theopháneia).

This unique feast is celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Church, and millions of people around the world participate in liturgies, Masses and many other traditional events which take place on this day.

One exception to this rule, however, is the churches which continue to follow the Julian calendar. Most of these Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of Epiphany on January 19th, rather than the sixth, as does the rest of Christianity.

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, to which the Greek Orthodox Church also belongs, the feast of Epiphany is associated with the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River.

According to archaeologists, Christians began celebrating Epiphany from as early as 200 AD in the Greek-speaking eastern parts of the Roman Empire, and these celebrations began as a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.

However, Western European Christians increasingly began to associate Epiphany with the visit of the Magi to the newborn Jesus Christ.

For this reason, many parts of the West call Epiphany ”The Small Christmas” up to this day.
However, both Churches commemorate the groundbreaking revelation of God to the world, either via the three Magi or Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

A Worldwide Christian Feast

In Greece, Cyprus and the Greek diaspora throughout the world, the feast of Epiphany is known by its English alternative term, Theophany. Many people most commonly also refer to it as ”Phόta,” which is Greek for “Lights.”

Greeks call this celebration Phόta because according to their belief, this is the day that God enlightened the world with His wisdom.

Epiphany customs in Greece and Cyprus revolve around the Great Blessing of the Waters.
During these ceremonies, which are held on beaches, lakes and rivers, a cross is thrown into the water by a Greek Orthodox priest, and then boys and men compete to retrieve it so that they may have good luck throughout the year.

In the past, it was very common in Greece to hear children singing Epiphany carols the day before the Feast, a tradition similar to the singing of the Kalanta, or Christmas and New Year Day’s carols.

However, this particular tradition is now almost extinct, with a few exceptions in localities across Greece and Cyprus.

Of course, apart from the traditional blessing of the waters, many places in Greece, from small villages to large cities, observe their own unique traditions, which are deeply rooted in ancient Greek or Byzantine practices.

World’s largest celebration of Epiphany in Tarpon Springs, Florida

The annual Epiphany celebration of the Baptism of Jesus Christ will be held on January 6, 2022 at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, along with Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta, will preside over this year’s observance, said the Reverend Fr. Athanasios Haros, Dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

“This blessing is an annual opportunity for us to recall our need for God’s grace, as the Archbishop beckons the Holy Spirit to descend upon the waters of Spring Bayou.”

On January 6th, Epiphany observances begin at 8 a.m. with the service of Orthros (Matins) followed by the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral at 9 a.m. The Cathedral is located at 36 N. Pinellas Avenue in Tarpon Springs.

Elpidophoros to cast cross into Tarpon Springs waters to mark Epiphany

Following the Divine Liturgy and Great Blessing of the waters, Archbishop Elpidophoros, along with hierarchs, clergy, dignitaries and young men, will proceed to the Spring Bayou.

There, an invocation will be recited and a white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit, will be released to fly over the Bayou. The Archbishop will cast a white cross into the water and dozens of young men will dive for the cross, each seeking the honor of retrieving it. The retriever then kneels with the cross before the Archbishop for a blessing.

This year, the Cathedral is proud to announce the Inaugural Epiphany Lecture to take place on Friday, at 7 pm, January 7, 2022, in Fr. Tryfon Hall in downtown Tarpon Springs.

Reverend Dr. John Chryssavgis will speak on the topic: “On Earth as in Heaven: Spiritual Roots of the Ecological Crisis.” The lecture is free and open to the public.

About the new lecture series, Fr. Athanasios said, “We’re very excited to add this new element to our Epiphany Celebration. Since we are blessing creation, we felt it was important to discuss creation from a spiritual point of view.”

The Epiphany Lecture Series is anticipated to be an annual event. Fr. John Chryssavgis serves as theological advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Born in Australia, he is the author of numerous books and articles on spirituality and ecology. He lives in Maine.

Tarpon Springs like a Greek island in Florida

Tarpon Springs, in Pinellas County, Florida, resembles a Greek island, with its blue and white structures, street names, the boats in its harbor, and its Greek-themed shops and restaurants.

The picturesque town has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the US. Many of them still work in the local sponge industry, which was started by their Greek ancestors.

Chris Alahouzos is the town’s mayor. Alahouzos and his family emigrated to the United States from the Greek island of Kalymnos when he was 14, and his father was a sponge diver.

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