One Boy's Sacred Gift

An ancient ritual teaches a modern lesson in sacrifice

March 06, 2000|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

No one believed the boy at first.

Yeah, right, his mother said.

What's wrong with you? his friend asked.

He was only 14 then -- he still forgot to carry his plate to the sink -- and besides, wanting to become a priest was such a big deal. His great-grandfather had been one in Greece.

It had happened anyway, the Thursday of Holy Week. Spellbound by candles, incense and ancient chants, a feeling came over Alex Haziminas, and "it was just one of those feelings you always want to have."

Finally, he told his priest.

Constantine Monios, the gray-haired senior father at Baltimore's Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, warned Alex that while being a priest was rewarding, the work meant putting the needs of others first.

Young Alex had not made such a sacrifice.

Not yet.

He grew up in the Greek Orthodox faith so he knew priests could marry. He could raise a family if he wanted. He wouldn't get rich, but that didn't matter. It was still a cool idea.

In high school, at home in Catonsville, he learned to expect four years of college and three years of graduate school at a seminary before he could be ordained. Alex dreaded the schooling. He liked his religion class at Mount St. Joseph, and he tolerated math and science, but English was not his thing.

You will have to work on your studies, Father Monios said.

And the tongue ring will have to go.

In the future, there will be little time for shopping for CDs or watching MTV. The hours will be longer than bagging groceries at the Giant, or cleaning cars at the Saturn dealership on York Road.

The T-shirts and white khakis will stay in the closet. Alex will need long robes to cover a 6-foot-2 body sculpted by swim lessons, junior varsity wrestling and the church basketball league.

And he should probably stop shaving his head.

"With God's help," Father Monios said, "Alex will make a fine priest."

Getting Alex up for school was like "the Vietnam War," said his mother, but on Sunday mornings, he was showered, dressed in a suit and waiting.

He rose through the church ranks to become head altar boy by the time he turned 18 last year.

"As an altar boy, he is a natural," Father Monios says. Alex shines in the ornate robes, certain of his place among the gilded icons and the saints in the stained-glass windows. In the inner altar, the holiest of holy places, Father Monios says, "Alex glows."

His Greek is excellent, his sense of the liturgy is impressive; in church he is a sponge, absorbing every word. The fathers mentor him, nurture him, prepare him for the sacrifice ahead.

One day last winter, Father Monios and his assistant, Father Dean Moralis, drove Alex to Ocean City for the Feast of the Epiphany.

They followed a salt truck the entire way, and what should have taken three hours from Baltimore stretched into five. In the back seat, Alex tried to sleep.

He knew how the next day's service would unfold: There would be a preparation, an "orthros;" a divine liturgy; and then outside, a blessing of the waters, an "agiasmos."

But Alex had not participated in the procession to the pier overlooking Assawoman Bay, or the dive afterward into the frigid water.

He had learned in Sunday school what the ritual symbolized. Epiphany was the day John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. It had once been the most celebrated holy day in the church calendar, more so than Christmas, the birth of Christ.

Alex knew a high-ranking priest, maybe even a bishop, would say a blessing, toss holy water, take a wooden cross from a special box, and at the moment the baptism passage was read and a dove was released, fling the cross into the waves.

Alex and other boys would then dive in to retrieve it.

The thought made his stomach muscles tighten.

The priests had shown Alex pictures taken in Florida, where thousands of people lined the shores of Tarpon Springs to watch the dive. Dozens of boys thrashed in the water like gators. But only one raised the cross into the sky.

That boy received a special blessing and a year of good luck.

Alex wanted to be that boy.

When he told his parents he was going to dive, their eyes lighted up.

"This is very important to all of us," his mother said. "Every child, from the day he is born, particularly when you are in Greece, knows about the cross. The smallest village in the smallest place, they are going to do it."

The Ocean City dive was only the second organized by the small parish of St. George, and the young men there were familiar with January water temperatures, so only five showed up. One came in a wet suit.

When Alex walked down the 10 cold steps into the choppy water, wearing only swimming trunks, Father Monios saw him shiver. The boys waded to the end of the pier and stood in line, their backs to the crowd, while the wind notched whitecaps around them.

Then Alex saw it.

The cross flew over his head. The water erupted in a tangle of arms and splashes and just as Alex was closing in on the cross, about to wrap his fingers around it, someone else thrust it into the air.

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