Feast of Epiphany – My First Introduction

Tomorrow the Church celebrates the Feast of Epiphany (it’s called “Theophany” in Eastern Church). I’ve had two introductions to Epiphany. One over 25 years ago, the other this year.

The first one.

The first time I ever heard the word Epiphany was in High School. But it wasn’t in a church. It was in my High School.

Perhaps the word was spoken in some service or some occasion of worship in my low-church fundamentalist Baptist church in my subsequent 15 years of life, but I don’t ever remember hearing it. And I certainly had no idea what it meant. As it turned out, while I didn’t know the word, growing up in a dispensationalist theological context I heard of the idea often – Jesus’ second coming.

Epiphany is an Greek loan word just transliterated into English (epiphanian). Both the noun and the verb form appear in the NT. The word means “to appear” or the “appearing”. It is used by Luke in Luke 1:79 (coming of Messiah) and Acts 27:20 (of the sun and stars) and by Paul in 6 places (2Th. 2:8; 1Tim. 6:14; 2Tim. 1:10; 4:1;  4:8; Titus 2:11, 13; 3:4).

Paul can use it to refer to either the first or second coming of Jesus. Titus 2:11-13 is an example of both time frames using the verb and noun:

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,  13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,  14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Well, back to the first time I was introduced to Epiphany . . .

I lived in Florida and attended Tarpon Springs High School — Go Spongers! Yes our mascot was a Sponger! – we soak the competition! That’s the best we could do! — a century or more earlier a Greek immigrants founded a Greek colony around the sponging industry – thus our mascot. The “Sponge Docks” were a popular tourist attraction for those retirees bored of shuffleboard.

Because of the Greek influence, the Greek Orthodox Church was prominent in the community and Greeks were a large minority population in the town. Every January the Greek kids at our High School celebrated Epiphany. On that day, every boy in the town wished they were baptized in the Greek Orthodox church. I should point out clearly though that while this was a Christian festival, my Greek friends were not excited about it because they loved Jesus and his Church. The reason it was so popular was first because if you were Greek you were granted an excused absence from school that day. And secondly, because of the specular event that took place down at the bayou in the center of town.

On Epiphany in Tarpon Springs all the adolescent and young adult boys participate in an exciting ceremony, “the Retrieving of the cross”.

Picture this . . . a semi-circle ring of boats full of testosterone filled boys poised to jump in the cold January water to retrieve the cross tossed in by the church’s Archbishop. Even though non-Greeks were not given an excused absence most of us skipped class to watch this event. It was one of those can’t miss things.

A side note, the cross was actually made in our shop class at school by Mr. Paskalakis – I took shop my Freshman year. I remember Mr. Paskalakis was a grisly old man (with an uncommon kindness), exactly what you would image a shop teacher to be like. That year I saw the cross made from a piece of wood. He passed away just a couple of years ago. See his story here.

So there is the ring of boats filled with boys, there’s the Archbishop with the cross in his hand, his arm raised to throw it in the center of the ring. The water still, the moment actually still, a January stillness. And then the throw. And the quick reflexes of youth and after a underwater skirmish, rivaling any scrum in Rugby or pile up in American Football, a victorious boy bolts up out of the water with the cross in his hand. The Winner!

By the way, the boy with the cross is thought to have a special blessing for the year . . . that’s the religious way of saying what was the more common vernacular of “a year of good luck”.

Wow, to be Greek Orthodox adolescent in Tarpon Springs for a day in January, on Epiphany!

But even after that first introduction I really didn’t know what Epiphany was . . .

You must check out these pictures from last year’s Tarpon Springs Epiphany to see what I’m talking about. It really is quite a spectacular celebration.

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  • Andrea Cladis

    I have never heard of such a tradition on Epiphany to celebrate the coming of the three kings with gifts, but that was quite funny. I enjoyed this post very much, Joel. I am sorry you had so many Greeks at your high school. They can be loud and obnoxious, but you managed to make light of it. Thanks for sharing. And have a blessed Epiphany!

    • Dana Ames

      Andrea, in the Orthodox Church, Epiphany/Theophany is not about the coming of the three kings; that’s “folded into” the Christmas birth event. Theophany is about the Baptism of Christ and his obedience in fulfilling all righteousness, and what the meaning of the Incarnation is, not only for humanity but for all of creation. In addition, it is celebrated as the first time God was revealed as Trinity.

      This short song is sung multiple times, to get the point across:

      When You, O Lord, were baptized in the Jordan
      The worship of the Trinity was made manifest;
      For the voice of the Father bore witness to You
      And called You His beloved Son,
      And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
      Confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
      O Christ, our God, You have revealed Yourself
      And have enlightened the world: Glory to You!