MARY ESTHER — Youths braved the cold water of Santa Rosa Sound on Saturday in hopes of emerging with a special blessing during the 43rd annual Epiphany Cross Dive hosted by Saints Markella and Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church.
It was only a matter of seconds before 17-year-old Efstathios Sneeder, unperturbed by the water’s temperature, surfaced with the white ceremonial cross held high.
All of the youths received a blessing from the Rev. Thomas Guerry. Sneeder, though, was overjoyed to earn a blessing all his own.
“I’m really happy,” a grinning Sneeder said. “I really love my church and I love making my family proud.”
Not all the six participants were eager to take the plunge. As four fought for the victory, one diver stopped as the water approached his knees while another decided to stay dry onshore in the 38-degree weather.
A centuries old tradition in the Greek Orthodox Church, the Cross Dive represents Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
“It’s considered a special blessing to retrieve the cross,” Guerry said. “Humanity is joined to Jesus Christ by the baptism as we are baptized into him.”
Saturday’s celebration began with a sermon by Guerry, known by his congregation as “Father Thomas,” at the church. Led by altar boys, church members then paraded across U.S. Highway 98 to the city of Mary Esther’s boat launch.
Guerry and his congregation sang prayers for the community, military, the divers and others before he tossed the cross into the water.
The youths, some from other Greek Orthodox churches in the area, quickly wrapped themselves in beach towels after the dive. They were rewarded with cross necklaces and T-shirts.
Church members then returned to the church’s warmer confines for a lunch of lamb and chicken.
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