On the west bank of the River Jordan, near the site known as “Qasr al-Yahud”, the Franciscan friars celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord exactly where, according to tradition, the episode narrated in the Gospels took place. On Sunday 9 January, the feast-day started in the Franciscan convent of the Good Shepherd of Jericho nearby. The local civil and religious authorities – including the Mayor, the Governor and the imam of the Mosque of Jericho – joyfully welcomed and greeted the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, in the presence of the Consul-General of Italy, Giuseppe Fedele, the Consul General of Spain, Alfonso Lucini Mateo and the head of the department of the political affairs of the Belgian Consulate, Philip Haspeslagh, as well as of the parish priest Fr. Mario Hadchiti.
The friars then went in a solemn procession from the higher part of the site of the Baptism to the banks of the River Jordan for the celebration of the Holy Mass, in which the parishioners of Jericho and other local faithful also took part.
In the homily, the Custos of the Holy Land recalled that it has only been since last year that they have been able to celebrate again in front of the small Franciscan church, of which the land had been cleared of mines after decades of abandon: “For 54 years we had not been able to celebrate here because it had become a minefield. Last year, we were a small group, due to the pandemic, hardly thirty people. This year, we are again gathered together in large numbers, as the people of God, as the Church, to celebrate the baptism of Jesus here in our shrine dedicated to the baptism of Jesus.” Almost a thousand people, according to estimates, attended the celebration in the open air, in the respect of the health rules.
The Custos then explained the meaning of the Baptism of Jesus: “When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan and was baptised by John together with the sinners, he expresses the solidarity of God with sinning humanity, i.e. with each and every one of us, and the intention that God has of saving the whole of humanity and each one of us.” With the baptism, then, “life becomes the vocation for a mission,” concluded the Custos (the complete homily is here).
“The message of this feast-day drives us to encourage people to stay in this land,” said the parish priest of Jericho, Fr. Mario Maria Hadchiti, “because Jesus became incarnate in this land. In today’s Gospel we also find the figure of St John the Baptist, a free and brave man, who preached to people without making any distinction. The word of God remains effective yesterday, today and always.”
The pilgrimage continued to the Greek Orthodox monastery of the Quarantine near Jericho, which has been recognised for centuries as the mountain where Jesus underwent the temptations. The reading of this passage of the Gospel which recalls this episode (Matthew 4, 1-11) brought the day of prayer to a close, in front of the ancient monastery, which was abandoned for a very long period of time and has again been active since then end of the 19th century.
The site of the Baptism of Jesus
The small Franciscan church which is close to the River Jordan was built in 1956, on land bought by the Custody in 1932. The tradition of going on an annual pilgrimage to this site, in memory of the baptism of Jesus, has however been recorded since at least 1641.
In 1967, due to the outbreak of ar between Israel and Jordan, the area because a minefield of fifty-five hectares, from which the Franciscans were forced to flee. The holy place – which is in Palestinian territory, classified as area “C” under the control of Israel, according to the Oslo Agreements of the early 1990s - was partially reclaimed for the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land in 2000 and then made accessible to pilgrims in 2011.
In March 2018, the Halo Trust started demining the area, succeeding in completely clearing it and restoring the keys of the place to the Franciscans in October 2020. The site occupies two levels with two staircases outside the building, which allow access to the small church on the upper floor.
After the renovation, in 2021 the church was inaugurated again and went back to being the venue of the celebrations of the feast-day of the Baptism of Jesus.