Epiphany, observed on January 6th, celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ and the historic manifestation of the Holy Trinity. Liturgically, the Church commemorates the Feast day with a Blessing of the Waters service at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy. For many communities, this service transitions from the church to a nearby open body of water. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of parishes across the globe add an additional, semi-liturgical component- a competitive diving for the cross.
Perhaps the most famous of these events in the Western Hemisphere occurs in my home parish in Tarpon Springs, Florida. The city’s first celebration took place in 1903. Today, tens of thousands of spectators gather around Spring Bayou to pray and participate in the festivities. Following the service in St. Nicholas Cathedral, the choir, community organizations, altar boys, priests, and visiting dignitaries process in unity to the water. After hymns, prayers, and a reading of the Gospel, the Bishop tosses a white wooden cross into Spring Bayou, and young divers plunge in to retrieve it.
The Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs is the event of the year. Many divers refer to the experience—whether they win or not—as the blessing of a lifetime. Indeed, many say that simply participating in the dive is an ecstatic experience that enlivens their relationship with God. But this blessing is conferred upon only half of the Orthodox population, because the application for diving on Epiphany in Tarpon Springs explicitly states: must be a male.
The male-only rule is both arbitrary and theologically unjustifiable. As a result, the Greek Orthodox community in Tarpon Springs has unnecessarily turned a beautiful celebration of God’s revealing of himself to the whole of humanity into an exclusionary tradition.
In recent years, local journalists have questioned the rationale behind prohibiting girls. Typically, the response from community members runs something like “since Jesus was a man when he was baptized in the Jordan River, only boys ought to dive for the cross to maintain the symbolic connection.”
But that line of thinking reveals a shocking degree of ignorance, not only concerning the meaning of Epiphany itself, but also about the biblical, hymnographic, and Patristic teaching of gender distinction and restriction within our Church.
While it is, of course, true that God chose to be incarnate as male in Jesus Christ, there is no sound theological reason to believe that Christ’s maleness confers special dispensation to men alone. Do we believe that only men are saved? Do we believe that only men can have spiritual gifts or be saints? Do we believe that only they can participate in the sacraments? Of course not.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 6:26-28).
In other words, St. Paul is saying that because we have been baptized, we are equal participants in Christ’s glory, equal participants in the body of Christ. The very Feast of Epiphany celebrates the introduction of baptism into the world. As such, the restriction of young women from this popular semi-liturgical festivity is not only unfounded, it ironically undermines the very theological claim that the original Epiphany marked the revealing of the Trinity to the whole of humanity.
In the Apolytikion we sing, “Glory to You, Christ our God, who appeared and enlightened the world.” On a Feast Day that celebrates such a blessing bestowed upon all people, the exclusion of half of the youth from participating is senseless, and is ultimately antithetical to the essence of Epiphany.
Some members of the community will justify the male-only dive with a kind of separate-but-equal argument, pointing to the fact that some elements of the celebration are reserved for girls, such as the “dove bearer.” Every year, one young girl in the choir is chosen by church elders to release a dove preceding the dive, symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit. I personally had the honor of being the dove bearer in the 2014 Epiphany celebration. It was a moving experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
But one dove bearer hardly offers equal opportunity compared to some 50-60 boys that are able to dive for the cross each year. Although only one person retrieves the cross, the divers often describe the experience as a shared blessing.
What possible reason could there be to justify the exclusion of teenage girls from partaking in this blessing? We are not talking about a female priesthood here—we are talking about allowing girls to dive into the water.
In short, the gendering of the commemoration of Epiphany is problematic. Not only is it contrary to the theological claim of the θεοφάνεια, there is absolutely no need for gender-based discrimination. Both diving for the cross and bearing the dove, ought to be open to all adolescents, regardless of gender, in order for young Orthodox Christians to be able to participate in the fullness of their traditions.
In a world where only one half of the people raised in the Church are remaining in the Church, one has to wonder why anyone would think the exclusion of young women from the Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs is a good idea.
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