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16-year-old retrieves Epiphany cross, hopes good luck will help family

10:56 PM, Jan 6, 2013   |    comments
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TARPON SPRINGS, Florida - Vassilios Harding didn't fully realize what he was holding until friends gathered around him in the water.

It was only by the sound of cheers and screams that it sunk in: after diving into Spring Bayou with dozens of other Greek Orthodox teenagers, he had grabbed the cross that brings with it, according to the tradition of Epiphany, a year of good luck.

"Honestly, I was just happy to be part of it, that's all," Harding said, holding back tears. "I'm so happy right now."

Harding said the best luck that could come to him in the next year is for his father, who works as a commercial boat captain in the Florida Keys, to be able to come home.

It's a particularly emotional moment because of the 107-year-old tradition that fellow cross divers call a deeply spiritual event. The Epiphany honors Jesus' baptism by St. John the Baptist in the River Jordan.

Each year, the day starts off with a traditional litany procession that is also broadcast through speakers at Spring Bayou. That's where thousands of people gather to watch the cross dive after the blessing of the waters. Males between the ages of 16 and 18 are allowed to participate in hopes of finding the cross.

The one who retrieves it is hoisted onto the shoulders of his friends and carried down Tarpon Avenue.

"I'm normally looking up to him," Harding gestured down toward a friend who was carrying him on his shoulders. "Now, he's looking up to me."

This year, the cross floated rather than sank, because organizers decided to make it lighter. Last year, a cross sunk and couldn't be retrieved at first, so another one was thrown in. That resulted in three winners. Two of them were Harding's cousins.

"Your whole body shakes inside," said Tina Harding as she described how it felt to see her son retrieve the cross. "You're overjoyed and it's kind of a spiritual feeling. You can't even describe it."

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