SUNDAY, JANUARY 9: Today, millions of Western Christians remember the Baptism of Jesus—and there actually is breaking news in 2011 about this 2,000-year-old event.
Across the Eastern Christian church, many follow older calendars and will mark Jesus’ baptism later in January. For those pilgrims especially, Israel has announced the official opening of a public site on the western bank of the narrow portion of the Jordan River where historians believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus. That moment is filled with religious significance for the world’s 2 billion Christians.
In 2000, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm was based in Israel as a newspaper correspondent for a month and joined Armenian Orthodox pilgrims in a rare Israel-government-endorsed visit to the Jordan River site. Today, he recalls: “This Armenian-Orthodox pilgrimage came before violent conflict broke out again between Israelis and Palestinians, which happened later in 2000. As we headed toward the river that day in January 2000, everyone in the convoy of tour buses and Israeli army vehicles was full of hope for the future. Near the site, we were shown a beautiful new rest area the government had built. At that time, the baptismal site itself was still in need of reconstruction to make visitors comfortable. The Israeli side of the site was accessible only through a narrow road that sliced through miles of mine fields. Nevertheless, when we reached the Jordan River, Armenian pilgrims tumbled out of the buses, ran down the bank and many jumped in over their heads in the thick green waters. People prayed, splashed the water over themselves, filled bottles—and some even drank the green water. This euphoria wasn’t limited to the pilgrimage group. Several Bible scholars were on that tour in early 2000, including the Rev. Dr. Donald Strobe, who waded a few steps into the water himself. Of course, after the upsurge in violence later in 2000, access to that site was strictly limited for years.”
The reopening of the site on the Israeli side has to do mainly with tourism. The vast majority of pilgrims who want to visit the site travel through Jordan and wind up in those same green waters from the other bank. The photo, at top today, shows the site from Jordan’s side of the narrow river. The dirt bank across the water is the one that Armenian-Orthodox pilgrims rushed down in 2000.
Want to read more on the actual site? First, there’s a great article with photos and maps at the travel website Sacred Destinations. Jordan maintains a website called The Baptism Site of Jesus, The news about the reopening of the site was reported in the Jerusalem Post, which uses Israeli terms for the geography.
For a Vatican perspective on the Baptism of Jesus: Pope Benedict XVI has visited the Jordan side of the river and a new Catholic.net news story summarizes that visit as well as Benedict’s remarks on the importance of remembering Jesus’ baptism.
For a Greek Orthodox perspective on the observance: Read this overview of Epiphany from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which is part of the Eastern church and recalls Jesus’ baptism as part of the Epiphany celebration.