Sunday 29th of June 2014
This morning we had a bus excursion to the Jordan River. We again took the road down from Jerusalem towards Jericho, but instead of turning north to the city, we continued east to the River Jordan.
Along this eastern side of the country, the River Jordan is the border between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is not a welcoming border! There is a no man’s land of half a kilometre or more on either side of the river. This land is mined. The area is enclosed in a high barbed-wire fence. There are police patrols which regularly check for footprints in the dust to indicate incursions. There are military lookouts.
Last week we had been at the sources of the River Jordan in Galilee, the springs fed by Mount Hermon which from the River Jordan, flowing into the Sea of Galilee and then meandering down the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea. Today we were at the southern end of the River Jordan, near where it flows into the Dead Sea.
At this point east of Jericho there is a place where the River Jordan can be more easily forded. It is here, according to tradition, after the death of Moses, that the ancient Israelites crossed into the Promised Land. They were led by Joshua (a Hebrew/Aramaic name meaning “God is saving his people”, the English translation of which is “Jesus”). The story is told in the Book of Joshua, Chapter 3:
Israel Crosses the Jordan
1 Early in the morning Joshua rose and set out from Shittim with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan. They camped there before crossing over. 2 At the end of three days the officers went through the camp 3 and commanded the people, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place. Follow it, 4 so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, a distance of about two thousand cubits; do not come any nearer to it.” 5 Then Joshua said to the people, “Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” 6 To the priests Joshua said, “Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass on in front of the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went in front of the people.
7 The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. 8 You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” 9 Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.” 10 Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: 11 the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. 12 So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. 13 When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”
14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. 15 Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16 the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
It is very clear that this account is presented very much in terms of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Reed Sea, when, as directed by God, at Moses’ command, the waters parted on either side and the Israelites passed through on dry land. After they had passed, on Moses’ command, the waters closed in again and the Egyptians were drowned. For Jews, the Exodus is the paradigmatic event of God’s salvation, of God delivering them from slavery, of God giving them freedom. It is celebrated in the Feast of the Passover.
Christians recall the Exodus event in our celebration of Easter. For us it is a foreshadowing of the salvation won by Jesus Christ through his life, suffering, death on the cross and resurrection; it is salvation from sin; it is freedom from sin; it is liberation to live the life of grace; it is our Passover from death to life. We enter into this mystery through Baptism.
For all of the above reasons, it is not surprising that the Gospels present Jesus beginning his public ministry by being baptised by John at the River Jordan.
Jesus is said to have been baptised in the River Jordan in Judea. Therefore, the actual site of the baptism had to be on this short 5-kilometre stretch of river between the border with Samaria to the north and the Dead Sea to the south. The area is populated on both sides with numerous churches and monasteries each claiming to be the actual site of the baptism! Whatever about the actual place, the area is certain.
The baptism is recounted in the Gospels of Matthew (3:13-17, Mark (1:9-11) and Luke (3:21-22). Here is the account according to Matthew:
The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We had a Mass under a shaded awning above the river, during which we renewed our baptismal promises. Here is the text of the renewal of promises according to the Catholic liturgy:
V.Do you renounce sin, so as to live in the freedom of the children of God? R. I do.
V.Do you renounce the lure of evil, so that sin may have no mastery over you? R. I do.
V.Do you renounce Satan, the author and prince of sin? R. I do.
V. Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth? R. I do.
V. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered death and was buried, rose again from the dead and is seated at the right hand of the Father? R. I do.
V. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting? R. I do.
V. May almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and bestowed on us forgiveness of our sins, keep us by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord, for eternal life. R. Amen.
There was a mosaic of a dove in the arch of the shaded awning where we celebrated the Eucharist.
However, we had no need of the stone version, for while we were celebrating the Eucharist, a live dove perched on one of the pillars!
Many pilgrims come to this site to renew their baptism, much as we had done, but then commemorate it by immersing themselves in the waters of the River Jordan. For this purpose, an enterprising provider sells a white gown. There are changing rooms where people take off their clothes and pull this over their underwear so they can do the immersion in all modesty and then change back into their dry clothes.
The River Jordan was not wide and deep, but narrow and shallow, as you can see. And fairly dirty! Signs warned that the water was not potable! The small stream is the result of a long dry spell over the winter with very little rain to replenish the sources and the river.
However, while the River Jordan is little more than a stream today, I noticed a sign indicating the river level in January 2013. To my great surprise, it was about 10 metres above the present water level! It must have been a massive amount of water to fill the valley to that extent. It came from very heavy winter rains. I would imagine that when there is rainfall in the Judean wilderness, very little of it would be absorbed into the rocky ground and most of it would run-off in torrents down the valleys and swell the Jordan River with floodwaters.
I did not immerse myself in the River Jordan, but I did dip my toes in!!
After his baptism in the River Jordan, Jesus went into the Judaean wilderness where he was tempted. The traditional site for this is the area west of the city of Jericho. We had previously visited the site a couple of weeks ago. For details see the post on the Mount of Temptation.
After our visit to the baptismal site on the Jordan River, we boarded the bus for our return trip to Jerusalem.
Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!