I imagine. How many of the pilgrims would be delighted, once in Holy Land, to make a trip to the Jordan to see, touch, smell and listen to the water of the river where Jesus was baptised? Indeed, don’t pilgrims desire to trace the footsteps of Jesus? It’s only a pity however that not many of them have had this chance for such a trip.
Today the site is in a military zone, especially also that the river here marks the border between Israel and Jordan. The place is no longer accessible at any time. However, there is only one possibility.
The Franciscans, one of the custodians of the shrines in the Holy Land, have entered into a concession with the Israeli Army by which they are allowed, once in a year, to visit and celebrate mass at the baptismal site. This tradition has grown into an annual pilgrimage not only for the Franciscans but for the entire patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Orthodox Church has her own day too.
It’s a rare occasion that even some of Christians in Jerusalem still wait for day when they will able to join. I’m delighted to have participated in such pilgrimage within short time of my arrival in Jerusalem.
The 2006 pilgrimage took place on 26 of October. The participants were mostly from among theology and Bible students in Jerusalem, members of religious communities, priests and some local Christians. Pilgrims from different parts of the world who happened to be in Jerusalem at the time, profited to see what many others have only longed to visit.
There was a good mix of peoples: Africans, Europeans, Latin Americans and, noticeably, Indians and Filipinos. Besides, the colour of dress of the different congregations gave an added variety and richness.
The Benedictine monks some in white, black and still others in grey; Franciscans in brown, others in black; Dominicans in white, Salesian sisters in grey, Sisters of St Joseph in blue, Sisters of Charity (in the colour of Mother Teresa)…oh list endless. The blend was simply heavenly and the atmosphere ecstatic.
Standing before flowing water in the hilly, bald shaved Judean desert gave a contrast which was awesome and sacred. Standing before not just an ordinary river but such water with a venerated history; what a thrill!
At this stretch of 3km on the western bank of the Jordan are sites belonging to different churches where Jesus’ baptism is commemorated. In history pilgrims used to come to this place especially on the feast of Epiphany.
Outstanding among them are Russians who, until 1917, travelled, some on foot, to this place with shrouds which they wore at their arrival and baptised themselves in the water. The belief was that resurrection was guaranteed. Taking home water in bottles was, still today, popular practice because of the healing powers associated with it.
Today, only an altar remains at the site. There used to be a chapel and the hospice that were damaged by the 1956 earthquake.
After the mass, we went to Jericho; our destination was the Mount of Temptation or Quarantal (40) linked with the first and third temptations of Jesus in the desert forty days after his baptism.
‘If you are son of God, tell those stones to turn into loaves’. Then Satan took Jesus to the high mountain and said: ‘I will give you all these [kingdoms], if you fall at my feet and do me homage’ (Cf Mt 4:1-11).
On the cliff of this mountain there is a monastery of the Greek Orthodox monks; a quiet, prayerful place that overlooks the City of Jericho below. The pious tradition here is that in this monastery is the stone where Jesus sat when tempted.
This trip has a lot other remunerations to offer.
Firstly, travelling by bus between Jerusalem and Jericho gives you a magnificent view of the hills of the Judean desert, how many times is this area mentioned in the Gospels!
Besides, travelling on this road plunges you into the emotions of some events reported in the New Testament. You think about the compassion of a Good Samaritan to the man who had fallen victim to robbers.
In Jericho you think of Zaccheaus, Jesus and the sycamore tree. For are the pilgrims moved by mere touristy curiosity? Certainly not! Rather, is it not the yearning of the heart like Zaccheaus’; searching for something deeper? This sets us all at one with the chief tax collector. We identify with him and being in a place where this drama of search and encounter took place is simply overwhelming; you find yourself.
Who can resist, remain unmoved by this experience? Not only do such scenes enrich the Bible with freshness and realness they also slip you into a quiet prayer of admiration to which only your amen suffices.
I only understand why it’s with such nostalgia I reminisce this trip. And this is my consolation: I look forward with pleasure to October 25, Thursday, 2007; for this year’s pilgrimage.
© Evans K. Chama 2007
A Missionary of Africa studying theology in Jerusalem
Photos 2 and 3 by Sor. Janet Wintermute, taken during the Templar’s pilgrimage of 2005, lead by Master Antonio Paris.