The “Epiphany” or baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four gospels: Matthew 3, Mark 1:1-9, Luke 3:21-22, and John 1:31-34. Epiphany is among the most important religious holidays in the Orthodox ecclesial calendar. Along with the Nativity (Christmas) and Pascha (Easter) Epiphany ranks among the most popularly celebrated Christian feast around the world.
Commemorating the Baptism of Christ, Epiphany is recorded early in Christendom: the second century by Clement of Alexandria, Ammianus Marcellinus and Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century. John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian refer to this event as the Theophany “Feast of Lights.”
6th century Theophany poem ends thusly:
“The Jordan turned back and the mountains leapt, seeing God in the flesh, and the clouds gave voice, marveling at the One present, light of light, true God of true God, Who submerged in the Jordan the death of disobedience and the sting of error and the bond of Hades, giving to the world a baptism of salvation.”
The religious importance of Epiphany cannot be overstated. And contrasting reported comments from local Tarpon officials, it is not a local event. For millennia large regions of the Orthodox world would be gathering in significant sites for a communal celebration, this tradition continues, to this day around the world. And ranking at the top of the list is Tarpon Springs, an internationally recognized “religious event.” In 2006 the worldwide leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, sojourned to Florida to commemorate the 100th centennial anniversary.
Let us take a stroll back further in history. Unlike the secular Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, the world’s largest parade, which started in 1924, the ancient Rite of the Tarpon Spring “Cross Dive” began in prior to 1905, with ecclesiastic roots going back to the first and second centuries.
Greek immigrants began to arrive in Tarpon Springs, Florida in the 1880s. Fleeing religious persecution of the Ottoman Empire following the four-hundred-year enslavement, the Fascist conquered and ruled until the island finally won independence in 1947, when the Dodecanese were completely united with mainland Greece.
With the founding of the historic St Nicholas Cathedral, the Epiphany celebration officially began. Yes, in 1905 seven years prior to the establishment of Pinellas County in 1912. When Tampa and St Pete had a combined population of less than 20,000 people (1910 – St Pete Population: 4,127).
For at least the last 115 years nothing stopped this important religious holiday from being celebrated:
- 1917 World War I, Florida was site for military training and shipbuilding
- 1918 The Spanish Influenza
- 1919 January 6, Death of the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt
- 1921 Tarpon Springs hurricane (October 20, devastated the area for months)
- 1930s The Great Depression
- 1941 World War II (Attack on Pearl Harbor was less than a month earlier)
- 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis
- 1977 Severe cold devastates Florida President Carter proclaims disaster areas
- 2018 Freezing temperature on Epiphany
A Constitutional issue?
The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It continues “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” Local leaders say the First Amendment “does not provide the right to conduct an assembly at which there is a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, or interference with traffic on public streets, or other immediate threat to public safety or order.” Epiphany is the free exercise of religion which includes people peaceably assembling.
According to FSB in Maryland, “State Governors have issued Executive Orders restricting the operation of businesses and the daily activities of individuals. These Orders often include prohibitions on the gathering of 10 or more people in any enclosed space. Churches have not been exempt from these Executive Orders, and religious activities are usually expressly included.” Though in Florida, Governor DeSantis has issued no such order.
Nevertheless, the local Tarpon administration has taken a different approach, closing all public areas; parks, roads, and various access points around the Bayou; limiting religious procession, and regulating faithful congregants of the local Body (church) from assembling. Even as rumors of the upcoming Super Bowl allowing 50-60 thousand spectators in Hillsborough County. The extraordinary measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) continue to cause constitutional clashes, could Tarpon’s Epiphany be another one?
Recently “the Supreme Court sided with a California church and declared Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Covid-19 order prohibiting some worship services unconstitutional.” According to the ACLJ “the Coronavirus pandemic is real, and no community has done more to be flexible and ensure the health and safety of their congregants than churches all across America.”
In the 6th century Sophronius Patriarch of Jerusalem concluded his resplendent liturgical poem (which is still chanted in the Orthodox Church and during the Tarpon Springs celebration) like this:
And grant to all, whether they touch it or are anointed by or partake of it, sanctification, blessing, cleansing, health.
“Sanctification, blessing, cleansing, health?” Yes as Orthodox Christians we have faith in these words, in these prayers! Yet local Tarpon authorities deem fit to “cancel public event.”
As citizens, as adults, and as faithful Christians who have lived the last year listening to the science, we are well equipped as individuals and as a community to set limits on participation which meet the needs of our faith. We understand social distancing practices and expect local leadership not to exceed the authority granted them by the local laws. And we expect the dignity afforded us in the Constitution to practice our faith without interference. We wear our masks not because we are afraid, but because we love our neighbor.
The Tarpon Springs Public Works Department, the sheriff, and evidently some church officials may now be listed with those scarce past authoritarian regimes who prohibited these ancient Christian “public events:” the Ottomans, the Soviet Union, and Cuba… who are among the scarce political powers in history, to prohibit this ancient religious practice.
Featured image at the top of this article: R. Christopher Trenkmann / ABC Action News
About the author
Elias Damianakis is a Florida-based Eastern Orthodox iconographer who serves as the archon maestor of the Great Church of Christ. For more information, visit his website.
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