The Jordan River today is not as mighty as it once was. It’s actually fairly narrow in most spots. And it’s dirty – a solid stream of brown, muddy, filthy water. Tall grass reeds grow on both sides. Because the river forms the border between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan, it is guarded by soldiers with machine guns. The traditional baptismal site of Jesus is at the end of a long dirt road in the middle of the Judean wilderness, surrounded by dirt and rocks and barren mountains.
Here, on the banks of the Jordan River, our pilgrimage group gathered to renew our baptismal promises. We read the gospel passage of John baptizing Jesus. We reaffirmed our three-fold denial of Satan and evil and our faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer. We sang the traditional Advent hymn, On Jordan’s Bank. Then, one by one, the pilgrims came forward to the banks of the Jordan where I had the great privilege of tracing the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads with water from the river that was made holy by the one who was baptized in it. Deacon Jeff Powell did the same for me. It was a powerful moment for all of us in recommitting ourselves to our baptismal call as disciples of Jesus Christ.
There weren’t too many people at the Jordan River today, and the lack of crowds made it easier for us to truly enter into prayer as a group. But there was a group of nine women there at the same time as us. They were Catholics from Los Angeles and were journeying through the Holy Land on their own, without a priest to accompany them. They spontaneously joined our group for the prayers, singing, and renewal of baptismal promises. They each came forward to be blessed by water from the Jordan. And we were blessed by their presence, reminding us once again on this pilgrimage of the universality of the Church.
Our visit to the Jordan River came at the middle of the day, after a very interesting tour of the archeological excavations at Beth Shean, a gentile city that was part of all of the major empires of the world – from Canaanite to Egyptian to Persian to Greek to Roman to Byzantine to Muslim. It was one of ten gentile cities called collectively the Decapolis. We know Jesus visited the Decapolis, although Scripture doesn’t say which of the ten cities he visited. It could have been Beth Shean. Regardless, we were able to learn about how people lived in major cities of the area both before and after the time of Jesus.
After lunch, we visited Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world – people have been living in this spot for 10,000 years! It’s also the lowest inhabited city in the world at 1200 feet below sea level. We celebrated Mass at the Catholic parish church in Jericho, the Good Shepherd Church. We then went right outside of the town to see the Mount of Temptation, where it is believed that Satan tempted Jesus after his fasting for 40 days in the desert. We then made our way through Jerusalem to a store in Bethlehem where many of us spent time shopping for items made locally from olive wood, and other souvenir items. We are now checked in to our hotel in Jerusalem, where we will be for the remainder of our pilgrimage. Tomorrow, we begin the day visiting Mt. Zion and the Upper Room, followed by Bethlehem and Ein Kerem, where John the Baptist was born.