On Sunday January 8, Travelujah Holy Land tours arranged for me to accompany the Franciscans of the Holy Land on their annual pilgrimage to the Jordan River. This "annual" trip was rather unique, because the same event was celebrated at the same place... less than three months ago. The reason: Until recently, the Baptismal Site known as "Qasr al Yahud" was a closed military zone, and pilgrims were allowed to go there only once a year, on the last Thursday of October. But last summer the Israeli authorities opened the site all year-round. With the site now much more accessible, the Franciscans decided to move the date of their annual pilgrimage to the most appropriate liturgical time for it, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, celebrated on the first Sunday after Epiphany (January 6).
The busload of friars left Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem shortly after 8 a.m., with a festive atmosphere on board. The attempts of Fr. Artemio Vitores, the Custodial Vicar, to announce the order of the day on the microphone were periodically interrupted by various jokes and songs. After only a half-hour ride, we made a brief first stop at the Parish of the Good Shepherd in Jericho, where the friars and faithful were welcomed by the local civil authorities. Fifteen minutes later, we were back on the bus and heading for the Jordan River.
As soon as we arrived, the Franciscans lined up for their ceremonial procession, starting from an abandoned monastery next to the parking lot. The friars led the procession towards the river, walking through the rocky ground in two orderly rows while singing Latin hymns such as "Lauda Ierusalem Dominum" and "Christus vincit". They were followed by the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, accompanied by religious, civil and military dignitaries, and with the faithful closing ranks just behind them.
Once we arrived at the shore of the Jordan, the Mass began promptly, celebrated by the Custos. The setting was ideal as we sat in balmy weather under the palm trees, just a few feet away from the water in which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The reading from the Gospel of Matthew reminded us that this is the place where Jesus' calling and mission were revealed by the Father, when after coming out of the water the heavens were opened, the Spirit of God descended like a dove upon him, and a voice from heaven said "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Mat 3:17).
When the Custos walked around the crowd, sprinkling the people as a reminder of our baptismal promises, it felt like a unique privilege to be blessed with a few drops of water from the Jordan on this Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. As Fr. Ibrahim, the parish priest of Jericho, reminded us in the homily, our baptism signifies a dying with Christ and rising to new life with Him. The moment was surely especially moving for the parents of the five children who were then baptized by Fr. Ibrahim.
In contrast to the deserted Jordanian shore of the river facing us, just a stone's throw away, the large joyful crowd on our side left no doubt that a festive event was being celebrated.
"It's great to be here, a real privilege" said Brother Maurizius, a Benedictine seminarian who joined the Franciscans for the day. "It was a very nice celebration at the Jordan River, on the day of Jesus' baptism at the place of his baptism."
Fr. Paul, a young Indian priest studying in Jerusalem, echoed him: "I really enjoyed this day, it was really wonderful to see five children being baptized at the same place where Jesus was baptized.
The Mount of Temptation
After Mass, we got back on the bus and headed for the Mount of Temptation, traditionally believed to be the place where Jesus went into the desert after his baptism to be tempted by Satan for 40 days. The hike up to the Greek Monastery, known as Qarantal, protruding from the rock high above Jericho, was not as daunting as it looked from below - a mere 20 minute walk from the parking lot.
At the entrance of the monastery, a Franciscan deacon read the account of Jesus' temptation before we entered for a short visit. We walked through the narrow passageway that connects the entire monastery, and were treated to some refreshments and snacks, courtesy of the Orthodox Monks who take care of the monastery. We then had a quick peek at the few modest chapels and caves carved into the rock in this masterpiece of monastic architecture, before heading back down to the bus towards our last top of the day.
Lunch at the Jericho Parish
We ended where we began, on the lawn of the parish church of Jericho. Friars and guests were treated by the local Palestinian Christian community to a fantastic lunch of grilled meats, Arabic salads (including the obligatory hummus and eggplant spread), and various baked goods. It was a light time of casual conversation, old and new encounters with much good humor and laughter, and the sharing of experiences in many languages: in addition to the lingue franche of the day, Italian and Arabic, one also heard plenty of Spanish, French, English, Hebrew, and other tongues.
In a time of conflict and turmoil in the Middle East, it was a mini-reversal of the Tower of Babel and actualization of the unity and fraternity of Pentecost. This was most visible at the end of the day, when some of the Franciscans got together to sing songs in their various languages. The improvised talent show crowned a day well spent celebrating the beginning of Jesus' ministry and our own participation in the mystery of his life, death and resurrection.
By ARIEL BEN AMI, TRAVELUJAH