While not part of the Promised Land, Jordan (or rather, the region called ‘beyond the Jordan’ in reference to the river) is of great Biblical importance. The Holy See considers it part of the Holy Land, and it is home to several indulgenced sites. Here, St. John the Baptist withdrew into the wilderness to survive on locusts and honey, and to give prophetic voice to the Messias whose coming was imminent.
We visited the natural spring, where the Baptist took refuge, on a rare day in the desert when it saw a light sprinkling of rain. The land is overgrown with thorny shrubs, unlikely to have had in his day the manicured trails it now boasts. A thick musty fragrance hangs in the air. Descending to the spring, one cannot help but be showered with muddy spores from the nearby foliage. St. John the Baptist would invariably have been covered in a drippy speckling of mud, a fact which adds nuance to Our Lord’s own suggestion about St. John’s wild appearance in the Gospel of St. Luke.
But what went you out to see? a man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are in costly apparel and live delicately, are in the houses of kings. (Luke 7:25)
The holiest site, however, is where Our Lord received baptism in the Jordan River from St. John the Baptist. The Jordan follows a windy path and is given to seasonal floods, that occasionally alter its course as silt is redistributed by the swelling waters. The location where John the Baptist baptized his disciples was where the outflow of his natural spring met the Jordan River in his day, now more than a hundred meters inland from the Jordan’s present location. The spring’s stream would have created a natural path through the thicket from his small inland cave to the River.
In the mid-1990s, archaeologists uncovered the remains of several early Christian baptistries dating from before the fourth century, located at the spot where the two waters met. The buildings served no particular Christian communities because they were too far out in the middle of nowhere. Yet, even after being destroyed by earthquakes, the early Christians rebuilt the site several times, at great expense and always in the exact same location. This is because they understood it to be the true location of Christ’s baptism. In the picture to the right, we see the remains of the baptistry built during the Byzantine period. The square blocks in the upper right bear a cross (on the third layer of stones from the top). They are believed to mark the precise location of Our Lord’s Baptism. Looking up, one could see the same place in the sky where the Father sent His Holy Ghost in the form of a dove to descend upon Our Lord, declaring Him to be His Son in whom He was well pleased.
After taking time to pray at the site of Our Lord’s Baptism, we walked a little further up the path to find the present location of the Jordan River and to renew our baptismal vows. We also had an opportunity to get our feet wet. Please excuse the ankle! The waters are cool and murky, refreshing after time spent in a desert. Even more surprising, the River is not much wider than a creek.
It recalled to mind the reply of the angered Naaman to the prophet Eliseus after being told to go wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be cured of his leprosy.
Are not the Abana, and the Pharphar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them, and be made clean? (2 Kings 5:12)
In the picture to the right, small bobbers mark the international border between Israel (far side) and the Kingdom of Jordan. Both countries have steps allowing pilgrims to descend into the River at this point nearest the historical location of Christ’s baptism. Guards are commonly seen monitoring the area to make sure no one swims (or wades) across. In Christ’s time the river would have been fuller. Its smallness now is a result of the Israeli government redirecting the flow of the Jordan for domestic use in the late 1960s, an act which incited a war with the Kingdom of Jordan several decades ago. In the desert, water is scarce.
Our pilgrimage guide, Fr. Alex Kratz, OFM pointed out that the location Our Lord chose for His baptism is not far from the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. This is also where Our Lord inaugurated His public ministry: the Pure One “cleansed” in muddy waters amidst the wilderness. He understood it as an expression of Our Lords love for sinners lost in the wilderness of despair and death. Our Lord came to forgive sins and to save us from the wilderness created by Original Sin.
Fr. Kratz is a Franciscan priest from Detroit, but lived in the Holy Land for twelve years. As part of his ministry, he leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land from Detroit twice a year through Terra Sancta Pilgrimages that are known for their prayerful focus and edifying preaching. He tries very hard to keep pilgrims from turning into tourists! Although Father does not, himself, know how to offer the old Mass, he has been very accommodating to us, even trying to arrange separate access to hard-to-get sacred locations for us to celebrate Mass. Most of the sacred sites in the Holy Land are under the custody of the Franciscan Order.
Click the video link below to hear the brothers chanting the Magnificat from Vespers in the Shrine of the Head of St. John the Baptist beneath the church of the same name in Madaba, Jordan. This shrine is located amidst an ancient acropolis, next to a 3,000 year old Moabite well that is still in use today.
To be continued…