Tag Archives: Jordan River

Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

 

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem  a high tower was built in the last century by the Russian government to allow Christian pilgrims an observation point to see the key places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Looking westward is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was crucified and rose from the dead. Just down below is the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was arrested. In the distance to the southeast is Bethlehem where he was born. On the eastern side of the Mount of Olives is the village of Bethany where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. Further east, about 20 miles down the Jordan Valley is where he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.

The tower was built, I understand, for pilgrims who couldn’t always get to all of these places because of age, or the pressure of time or perhaps because it was unsafe to travel to one of these destinations. That was especially true for the 20 mile trip to the Jordan River.

The tower attests the importance of  the journey to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The Baptism of Jesus is a mystery that includes all the mysteries of Jesus we celebrate as Christians. That’s why we celebrate it today as we conclude the mysteries of the Christmas season. In our baptism we are brought to share in his baptism and in his life.

In the Jordan River,  God the Father, “a voice from heaven,” proclaimed him “my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1,11) We believe that when we are baptized we become children of God with him, with us he is pleased.

We celebrate that gift today. As we go from church to church, we touch the Holy Water with our hands and bless ourselves, remembering the great gift we have in Jesus Christ. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

 

Looking at John the Baptist

Baptist

John the Baptist, in the fierce wilderness of the Jordan Valley, preaches and baptizes pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. What do we learn from him in the days of  Advent? Son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, John is six months older than Jesus, as Luke reckons it in his gospel. We wonder how close they were as children growing up.

John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River at the beginning of his ministry, but then they seem to part ways. Even as they do, John offers Jesus two of his own disciples, Peter and Andrew. Their only contact afterwards, however, seems to be through messengers.

Both preach a message of repentance, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matthew 3.2; 4,17). Both call for people to change, but Jesus’ message contains a surprising mercy not found in John’s preaching:

“When John speaks of the One who is to come, he is thinking of an executor of divine judgment, not so much of him through whom God’s mercy and love are made visible. He expects the kingdom of God to arrive in a storm of violence, in the immediate future, with the Messiah’s first appearance… From what we know of his preaching, he seems transfixed by the vision of the judgment and finds nothing to say about the salvation the Messiah will bring.” ( Rudolf Schnackenberg Christian Existence in the New Testament, Volume 1, University of Notre Dame 1968, p 39)

“The ax is ready to cut down the tree that bears no fruit,” John says. Repentance dominates his message. I think of him as a drill sergeant readying troops for the coming battle.

Jesus urges repentance too, but with a tenderness and compassion not found in John. “Go tell John what you hear and see…” he says to messengers John sends. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the dead are raised.

Jesus reveals God’s mercy, not only  through his many miracles, but also in his teaching. Think of the stories of the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the thief on the Cross– signs of God’s mercy, God’s patient mercy.

You must take a desert road, John says in his preaching. You must take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says, but again, the way’s not hard–his yoke is easy, his burden light.

Jesus doesn’t dismiss John. There’s none born of woman greater that he, Jesus says. John has integrity, he’s not swayed by what other people think or say, not swayed by public opinion or the fear of failure, or sickness, or deprivation, or death. He’s not swayed by winds good or bad. His face is turned to God, his ears hear God’s word, his voice speaks what he hears.

The Baptism of Jesus

The heavens open when Jesus goes into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized. The Spirit descends on him and the Father announces his pleasure in him: “Listen to him,” we’re told, and share in his life.

The baptism of Jesus, a feast we celebrate with the Feast of the Epiphany,  affirms a new connection between earth and heaven. It speaks through the simple, fundament sign of water. Going into the Jordan, Jesus indicates that God blesses the waters of the earth– and consequently creation itself– with life. Our second reading today from Isaiah 55, 1-11 illustrates this mystery so well. First of all, Jesus quenches the thirst of our souls; he comes to quench the thirst of all:

“ All you who are thirsty,

come to the water!

You who have no money,

come, receive grain and eat;

come, without paying and without cost,

drink wine and milk!” Isaiah 55, 1

God’s gift of Jesus Christ not only satisfies our thirst as individuals, he comes to revive the institutions of our world.

“I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,

the benefits assured to David.

As I made him a witness to the peoples,

a leader and commander of nations,

so shall you summon a nation you knew not,

and nations that knew you not shall run to you,

because of the LORD, your God,

the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.” (Isaiah 55)

Jesus Christ also comes to purify the world and those who dwell in it:

“Seek the LORD while he may be found,

call him while he is near.

Let the scoundrel forsake his way,

and the wicked man his thoughts;

let him turn to the LORD for mercy;

to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

As high as the heavens are above the earth

so high are my ways above your ways

and my thoughts above your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55

Finally, in his Son, God makes an everlasting covenant with our world:

“For just as from the heavens

the rain and snow come down

and do not return there

till they have watered the earth,

making it fertile and fruitful,

giving seed to the one who sows

and bread to the one who eats,

so shall my word be

that goes forth from my mouth;

my word shall not return to me void,

but shall do my will,

achieving the end for which I sent it.”

There’s an good article on the significance of water in the scriptures on the American Bible Society site.

The Jordan River


The Jordan River, which figures in so many of the sacred stories of the Holy Land, is still vital to this region today.  Though the river winds almost 200 miles from its sources at the base of the Golan mountains in the north into the Sea of Galilee and then on to the Dead Sea in the south, the direct distance from one end to the other is only about 60 miles. The river falls almost 3,000 feet on its way to the Dead Sea,.

The Jordan is sacred to Jews and Christians alike. It became holy to the Jews when they miraculously crossed it on their way to the Promised Land. The great Jewish prophet Elijah came from a town near the river’s banks. Later he returned to that part of the river to be safe from his enemies.

Elijah’s successor, the Prophet Elisha, also from Jordan area, told Naaman the Syrian general to bathe in the river to be cured of his leprosy, and he was cured. Ancient hot springs near Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee fostered the river’s curative reputation then. They’re still used today.

At the time of Jesus, the river’s fresh flowing waters were the life-blood of the land, making the Sea of Galilee teem with fish and the plains along its banks fertile for agriculture. Pilgrims from Galilee followed the Jordan on their way down to the city of Jericho, and from there went to Jerusalem to the temple to celebrate the holy days.

The Jordan Today

The river is still essential to the region. Lake Kineret, as the Israelis call the Sea of Galilee, is the primary source of drinking water for the region and crucial for its agriculture. The use of water from the Jordan is a major point of controversy between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

cf: “The Disputed Waters of the Jordan” by C. G. Smith Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers No. 40 (Dec., 1966), pp. 111-128 Oxford, England

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11101797

Nourishing Prophets

The river nourished prophets in the past.  Somewhere in the stretch of Jordan near Jericho where people forded the river, John the Baptist preached to and baptized pilgrims going to the Holy City.

The place where John baptized was hardly a desert as we think of it. It was a deserted place that offered sufficient food for survival, like the “ grass-hoppers and wild honey” John ate.  In this uncultivated place,  you learned to depend on what God provided.

That was the teaching of Jesus, remember. “I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Mt 6, 25 ff) The desert was a place to put worry aside and trust in the goodness of God.

When he entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, Jesus acknowledged his heavenly Father as the ultimate Source of Life, the creator of all things. Water, as it always is,  was a holy sign of life.  Like the prophets,  Elijah and John the Baptist, Jesus remained in this wilderness near the water for forty days to prepare for his divine mission. He readied himself to depend on God for everything.

The Jordan after Jesus

Later, when the Roman empire turned Christian in the 4th century, Christians came to the Jordan River in great numbers on Easter and on the Feast of the Epiphany to remember the One who was baptized there. They went into the sacred waters, and many took some of it home in small containers.

Early Christian pilgrims like Egeria, a nun from Gaul who came to the Holy Land around the year 415 AD left an account of her visit to the Jordan where she looked for the place of Jesus’ baptism.  Monks who had already settled near the river brought her to a place called Salim, near Jericho. The town, associated with the priest Melchisedech, was surrounded by fertile land which had a revered spring that flowed into the Jordan close by. Here’s how she described it:

“We came to a very beautiful fruit orchard, in the center of which the priest showed us a spring of the very purest and best water, which gives rise to a real stream. In front of the spring there is a sort of pool where it seems that St. John the Baptist administered baptism. Then the saintly priest said to us: ‘To this day this garden is known as the garden of St. John.’ There are many other brothers, holy monks coming from various places, who come to wash in that spring.

“The saintly priest also told us that even today all those who are to be baptized in this village, that is in the church of Melchisedech, are always baptized in this very spring at Easter; they return very early by candlelight with the clergy and the monks, singing psalms and antiphons; and all who have been baptized are led back early from the spring to the church of Melchisedech.” p 73

A 19th Century Pilgrim at the Jordan

Christians in great numbers have visited the Jordan River since Egeria. Towards the end of the 19th century, an English vicar, Cunningham Geikie described  Christian pilgrims following the venerable tradition of visiting its waters.

“Holy water is traditionally carried away by ship masters visiting the river as pilgrims to sprinkle their ships before a voyage; and we are told that all pilgrims alike went into the water wearing a linen garment, which they sacredly preserved  as a winding sheet to be wrapped around them at their death.

“The scene of the yearly bathing of pilgrims now is near the ford, about two miles above the Dead Sea, each sect having its own particular spot, which it fondly believes to be exactly where our Savior was baptized…

“Each Easter Monday thousands of pilgrims start, in a great caravan, from Jerusalem, under the protection of the Turkish government; a white flag and loud music going before them, while Turkish soldiers, with the green standard of the prophet, close the long procession. On the Greek Easter Monday, the same spectacle is repeated, four or five thousand pilgrims joining in the second caravan. Formerly the numbers going to the Jordan each year was much greater, from fifteen to twenty thousand….”(Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 pp 404-405)

The Jordan and Christian Baptism

Today, every Catholic parish church celebrates the mystery of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan at its baptistery where new believers receive new life and regular believers remember their own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some eastern Christian churches prefer to call their baptisteries simply “the Jordan.”

We will visit a baptismal site near the mouth of the Sea of Galilee. However, the most authentic site is further down the river in Jordanian territory at el-Maghtas, where a large church and pilgrim center are currently being built following excavations begun in 1996 by Jordanian archeologists. It is probably the  “Bethany beyond the Jordan” mentioned in the New Testament where Jesus was baptized and John the Baptist preached.

http://www.lpj.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=599%3Achurch-of-the-baptism-of-jesus-christ-maghtas-project-jordan&catid=81&Itemid=113&lang=en

The Jordan River may offer its own commentary on the mystery of death and resurrection of Jesus, expressed in his baptism.  At one end is the Sea of Galilee brimming with life, and at the other end is the Dead Sea a symbol of death. The river holds these two realities together, and if we reverse its course we can see the gift God gives us through Jesus Christ.

Like him, we pass through the waters of baptism from death to life.