In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1: 9-11)
On Jan. 10, some Christian denominations, including the global Anglican Church, commemorated the “Baptism of the Lord” by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. According to the scriptures, the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – are here manifested together: the voice of the Father speaking from heaven, the physical presence of Jesus the Son being baptized and the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. (Mk 1: 10-11)
That afternoon, I received an uplifting email from a couple who had been part of a pilgrimage group that I had organized and led to the Holy Land a few years ago. As St. Mark’s account of the sacred event was proclaimed during the service they attended that morning, vivid memories took them back to the Holy Land. They recalled the day they stood on the bank of the Jordan River with their fellow pilgrims. The scripture passage (above) was read to the group and, using the baptismal liturgy (The Book of Alternative Services, page 158), we renewed our baptismal vows. Standing in the river, I sprinkled the pilgrims with water, using a sprig from a eucalyptus tree nearby. We then said some prayers and broke out in song from our song sheets – good old, “Shall we Gather at the River?” Other groups of pilgrims joined us in singing!
After posing for and taking copious pictures, we were to return to our waiting “deluxe air-conditioned sightseeing motorcoach,” as the trip’s brochure advertised, to continue our sacred journey! Ah, but the only way back to the coach led through the attractive, overpriced souvenir shop! As is the expectation, we stopped to shop for souvenirs. The list of beautifully displayed items ranged from soup to nuts, but among the popular items were spices such as za’atar, where the main ingredient is biblical hyssop (Ex 12:22; Jn 19:29). Hyssop is a flowering herb of the mint family. Za’atar is made of hyssop crushed and mixed with olive oil, sesame seeds, garlic and salt for dipping bread. This simple and tasty treat was enjoyed in the area in the first century, as it still is today. But perhaps the most purchased products were honey made from local dates and a special blend of date honey with sesame seeds. Well worth the time and cost – part of the trip’s adventure!
But this popular spot is not the recognized site of Jesus’ baptism. It is a convenient place with easy access to the river, set up to accommodate pilgrims like us who would desire to remember Jesus’ baptism and either renew their own baptismal vows (as we did) or be baptized by full immersion in the river. The place long venerated by the Church and pilgrims as the original site of the baptism of Jesus and of the ministry of John the Baptist is shared between Israel and Jordan. In Israel, it is located on the west bank of the Jordan River just above where it empties into the Dead Sea. Interestingly, it is within sight of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947-8 and was home of the Essene community where John the Baptist could have come from. The baptismal site in Israel is called “Qasr el Yahud” or “Fortress of the Jews.” Right across from there, on the east bank, is biblical “Bethany beyond the Jordan” or “Al Maghtas” – Arabic for “immersion” – in Jordan. A yellow line of floating balloons in the middle of the river marks the border between the two countries at that point.
The Gospel of John names the place of John the Baptist’s ministry at the Jordan as “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” later named “Al Maghtas”: Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him (John the Baptist), “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Eli’jah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (Jn 1: 24-28).
Bethany beyond the Jordan has been visited by international pilgrims and venerated as the original place of Jesus’ baptism and of the ministry of John the Baptist since Byzantine times (c. 324 – 638CE). Various archaeological digs over the centuries have uncovered the ruins of a large monastery on a high place known as Elijah’s Hill and a sprawling area near the riverbank with ruins of more than 20 Roman and Byzantine churches and chapels, pools for baptism, dwelling places for pilgrims and some caves where desert hermits would have lived. The site was closed for decades due to the thousands of landmines planted there and left over from the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Jordan. The mines were cleared, and in 2015 Bethany beyond the Jordan was re-discovered and designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
According to early local tradition, Bethany beyond the Jordan is also the place where Joshua and the Israelites crossed over into the land of Canaan at the end of their wilderness journey from Egypt. (Jos 3:14–17) Local tradition also holds that from this place, the prophet Elijah was “taken up to heaven by a whirlwind.” (2 Ki 2:1)
Qasr el Yahud on the Israel side has not been designated a World Heritage site but was uncovered and renovated and opened to pilgrims around 2010. Just two years ago, the Rev. Canon Geoff Sangwine (of St. Peter & St. Simon, Toronto) and I (of St. Thomas, Brooklin), co-led a Holy Land pilgrimage with some of our parishioners and friends. We visited the impressive complex of Qasr el Yahud with its massive buildings, stone plaza and steps, sheltered chapels for services, and easy access to the river for baptism. There, beside the always-murky waters of the Jordan, we solemnly renewed our baptismal vows, read corresponding scripture, said prayers and sang a hymn. We looked longingly across the river towards Bethany beyond the Jordan, in Jordan, just yards away! Unfortunately, swimming across the narrow divide was not an option; we could only access the Jordan by visiting the Hashemite
Celebrating Epiphany at the Jordan River
In the Orthodox Church, Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River rather than the arrival of the Wise Men, as the Western Church celebrates on Jan 6. Since the mid-1800s and even earlier, thousands of pilgrims from Orthodox churches around the world would arrive in droves to the area annually to mark the occasion. Bishops and priests would preside over elaborate liturgies of baptisms and renewals of baptisms and enact ancient traditions such as the blessing of the water by immersing holy crosses in the river and releasing white doves into the air, reminiscent of the Holy Spirit. Myriads of frenzied pilgrims would immerse themselves in the water numerous times as if to relive their baptisms over and over. Russian Orthodox pilgrims have been known to come to the river dressed in their white burial shrouds or with them draped over their arms as they enter the muddy river. Those shrouds would then be kept for their burial. In 2021, despite the pandemic, it is reported that pilgrims still come in relatively large numbers to celebrate Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan.
In my previous life as a tour operator, I specialized in organizing and leading study tours and pilgrimage to biblical lands. The Holy Land, in times of peace and war and in-between, has provided the “mother of all Christian pilgrimage” experiences for centuries. It is the ideal pilgrimage destination for the three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In 10 days or so, Christian pilgrims can reach most of the accessible sites of both Old and New Testaments (some are seen from a distance). Pilgrims would read scripture at its geographical location, say prayers and sing hymns throughout the land.
The Rt. Rev. Kenneth Cragg, famed biblical scholar and Anglican bishop of Jerusalem and later Cairo, proposed that the combination of the biblical story and place, through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, can be a means of grace – can be sacramental. The Rev. Dr. Stanford R. Lucyk, who has led pilgrimage worldwide for 40 years, contends that just as linking the Word to bread and wine is sacramental, so likewise linking biblical geographical place to the applicable biblical narrative can be a sacramental experience. One may cruise the waters of the Sea of Galilee and reflect on corresponding scripture and gain insight into the miracles of Jesus around that freshwater lake that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us about. On another level, those seeking a cure from conditions like psoriasis may sample the therapeutic waters of the Dead Sea and be healed (there are proven documented cases) or one may simply “float” on the amazing Yam ha Melah or Salt Sea (Gen 14:3) near the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19), referenced numerous times throughout the Bible, even by Jesus himself. Overnights would be spent in key locations, ideally ending up in the eternal city of Jerusalem – the goal of all pilgrimage.
Enroute, lasting friendships are developed as the community of pilgrims share, eat together, engage with the scripture on location and pray and care for each other. Not only do pilgrims encounter the ancient ruins but also the “living stones” of the land such as the wonderful people who work to preserve the sacred sites; the colourful merchants who peddle their wares everywhere and those who would look after us daily. We also engaged with local Christian communities – the brothers and sisters of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem, and with others. There were sometimes opportunities for interfaith outreach with local Jews and Muslims. The stories and memories so impact and enrich one’s spiritual experience and do last for a lifetime!
The season of Epiphany and its focus on Jesus’ baptism and ours, and how we live out our baptismal vows, give way to the solemnity of Lent and our preparations to commemorate Holy Week, then to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Saviour. The words of St. Paul to the already-established Christian community in Rome express our eternal hope: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6: 3-6)