The lasting impact of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land unfolds gradually over time – and it seems particularly through the rhythms of the Church year as Scripture is read and meditated upon. In coming weeks and months, I hope to post occasional reflections from my recent pilgrimage that connect our experience of walking in the footsteps of Jesus and the Saints to whatever season, feast, or Scripture that we as a whole Church are focusing on. Here at the beginning of Advent, that means John the Baptist – for the next two Sundays, our Gospel readings are about John preparing the way for Jesus. I already posted some initial reflections on our visit to the Jordan River and renewal of baptismal promises; but here are some more thoughts.
While the general geography of the Holy Land has remained constant since the time of Jesus, quite a bit has changed. Like boundaries. At the time of Jesus, the Jordan River formed a natural boundary, but one that was easily navigable and frequently crossed. The fertile Jordan River valley was the natural path for travelers journeying from Galilee to Jerusalem – a path Jesus and the disciples would have followed regularly. In an area surrounded by deserts, travelers often stayed close to water. That just made sense. And the Jordan River was the most abundant source of water between the two places where Jesus spent most of his time.
But today, the Jordan River forms a national boundary between Israel (or the so-called Palestinian West Bank, depending on your political views) and the Kingdom of Jordan. And while Israel and Jordan have fairly good relations, the boundary is fortified – surrounded by fencing, guarded by soldiers, and the ground filled with land mines. You can’t walk along the Jordan River safely, let alone cross it. To reach the traditional baptismal site of Jesus, the Israeli government cleared a very narrow lane of land mines and built a pilgrim center along the river – staffed by Israeli Defense Force soldiers sitting along the top of the amphitheater with machine guns to make sure no one crosses the river. On the opposite bank, in the Kingdom of Jordan, there is also a pilgrim center built, along with a number of small chapels erected by a different Christian denominations. The river is only a few feet wide at this point, but there is no crossing back and forth – you can’t wade too much in the water, even, lest you wade into foreign territory. The river is now a barrier – a boundary – with no crossing over.
How different this is than our theology of what began at this place! Baptism is ultimately a sacrament of crossing over, being called out of darkness into light, away from ourselves and into the family of God, a death to sin and rising to new life through the gift of God’s grace. Many traditional baptismal fonts were designed so that those being baptized would enter on one side, be baptized, and then walk out on the opposite side, to signify this crossing over into new life. And baptism is the one sacrament that unites us all as Christians – there is “one Lord, one faith, one Baptism” (Ephesians 4.5). Baptism, which began in the Jordan River when John baptized Jesus, should bring us together – not divide us or separate us.
Maybe today’s Jordan River can remind us of the tension that inevitably exists in a world of sinful human beings, even when we have been redeemed by God’s grace. Even though original sin has been washed away in the waters of Baptism, its effects remain – concupiscence or the tendency to commit actual sin. Even though God has united us to himself and all the rest of his children through the waters of Baptism, we are still divided because of our own sinfulness. And that also reminds us that true unity and peace are only possible through Jesus Christ, the one who made holy the waters of Baptism through his own Baptism in the Jordan River. As we will hear John the Baptist say in this coming Sunday’s gospel, “One mightier than I is coming after me” (Mark 1.7). We can be instruments of God’s love and grace, but we are not its source and we cannot bring it to completion – only Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Mary, can do that. But that shouldn’t stop us from cooperating with God’s grace to tear down what barriers we can – to bring humanity together as much as possible in this world – and perhaps one day to even be able to cross the Jordan River from one side to the other safely and securely.
Renewing our baptismal promises recommits us to working together to help build God’s Kingdom on earth. But it all starts with God’s grace – God takes the initiative, he calls us to Himself, he offers his unmerited love through the sacraments, and he is the one who can unite us. Along the way, what barriers might we be able to work to cross? How do we profess “one Lord, one faith, one Baptism” by our lives? And how can we get out of the way so that the one who is “mightier than I” can work through us?