"It is the Spirit that gives testimony": the feast day of the Baptism of the Lord at the River Jordan | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

"It is the Spirit that gives testimony": the feast day of the Baptism of the Lord at the River Jordan

Jericho, 8th January 2012

Opened again last year by the Israeli authorities, the site on the banks of the River Jordan where the Baptism of Jesus has been commemorated since the 5th century, is once again a destination for many pilgrims, who can now freely visit this place on the border between Israel and Jordan. Here, in the Desert of Judea and the plain of Jericho, not far from the road for Tell es-Sultan, where ancient Jericho stood and which leads to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Quarantine, the different Christian confessions can again celebrate their functions on the Epiphany, which also contemplates the liturgy for the Baptism of the Lord. The Franciscan community of the Custody of the Holy Land, which for a long time, and until last year, commemorated the Baptism of Jesus on the last Thursday in October, was at last able to organize the traditional pilgrimage on 8th January, the first Sunday following Epiphany, thus becoming aligned with the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church.

The Franciscan community, together with the Custos of the Holy Land, Brother Pierbattista Pizzaballa, enthusiastically took part in this important appointment, as did a large number of local Christians, not only from the nearby Israeli and Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, Jericho and Bethlehem, but also from Galilee and other regions further away. This large group was also joined by many pilgrims who came to the River Jordan for this special occasion. The procession, which left from the Convent of the Good Shepherd, covered a stretch of road in the desert, with songs and prayers, reaching, with its hundreds of participants, the small chapel with the altar very close to the banks of the Jordan. From here, going down a few steps, there is a space near the river where, amidst the palm trees, a small altar was set up for the occasion, with some chairs arranged around it so that the people could attend the celebration of the Holy Mass. However, as there were not enough places in the lower area around the altar, many people stood on the steps to follow the celebration as well as further up, along the railings of the upper area.

The Holy Mass, celebrated in the presence of the local civil authorities, was presided by the Father Custos, together with H. E. Cardinal Giovanni Coppa, Apostolic Nuncio Emeritus in the Czech Republic and many brothers and other concelebrating priests. During the Holy Mass, four children from the local parish were also baptized, with the special privilege of receiving this fundamental sacrament with the water of the River Jordan. In the same way, at the end of the Eucharistic celebration, many wanted to get near to the Jordan and bathe in its waters, symbolically pour some water on their heads, recalling the penitential gesture carried out many times in this place by St. John the Baptist and which Jesus himself, at the start of his public ministry, accepted (Matthew 3,13-17).

The pilgrimage continued with a visit to the Greek Orthodox Monastery built on Mount Quarantine, a name which goes back to the Middle Ages and is associated with the memory, kept here since the 4th century, of the 40 days spent by Jesus in the desert and of the temptations which, at the end of this long retreat, he had to face in an intense confrontation with the demon (Matthew 4,1-11). The very beautiful monastery, set half-way up the rock face, in the mountains which act as a backdrop to Tell es-Sultan and which dominate the Jericho plain from the north-west, was built at the end of the 19th century by Orthodox monks around the grottos of the hermits of the deserts, who had lived there since the 5th century. After taking the path of steps that leads to the monastery, the group, together with the Franciscan friars who had also reached the top, stopped on the threshold of the building for a brief moment of prayer. Welcomed by the Greek Orthodox monks who still live in this remote spot, the pilgrims were able to go through the door of the monastery and be plunged for a short while into the atmosphere of this moving place. Everybody had the chance to visit the church, corresponding to an ancient grotto, and the small sanctuary which is reached by climbing a few steps. Here, on the western wall, there is a niche carved out of the rock in which there is a stone, marked by a cross, which indicates the traditional place of the first temptation of Jesus. There is also a splendid view from this position.

Jesus came to the baptism by John lining up with the sinners, as though he too were a sinner. He came close to man in everything, accepted everything for love of humanity and to obey his Father and, because of His meekness and this perfect love, the Father revealed Him as the favourite Son, the real educator to listen to and the good Shepherd to follow. Pope Benedict XVI writes: "Jesus is the One who “lowered himself” to become one of us, He who became man and accepted being humiliated, even dying on the cross (cf. Philippians 2,7). The baptism of Jesus fits into this logic of humility and solidarity: it is the gesture of the One who wants to be one of us completely and really lines up with the sinners; He, who is without sin, lets himself be treated as a sinner (cf. 2 Corinthians 5,21). [...] He is the “servant of God” the prophet Isaiah has told us about (cf. 42,1). His humility is dictated by wanting to establish full communion with humanity, with the desire to create true solidarity with man and his condition. The gesture of Jesus anticipates the Cross, the acceptance of death for the sins of man. This act of humiliation, with which Jesus wishes to come totally into line with the design of love of the Father and conform with us, shows the full harmony of wishes and intents that there is between the persons of the Holy Trinity. By this act of love, the Spirit of God manifests itself, like a dove above Him, and at that moment the love that unites Jesus with the Father is testified to all those who are present at the baptism by a voice from above that all can hear. The Father openly shows to men, to us, the deep communion that binds him to the Son: the voice that echoes from above attests that Jesus is obedient in everything to the Father and that this obedience is the expression of the love that unites them. Therefore, the Father is pleased with Jesus, because he recognizes in the behaviour of the Son the desire to follow his will in everything: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3,17). This word of the Father also alludes, in anticipation, to the victory of the resurrection and tells us how we must live for the Father to be pleased with us, by behaving like Jesus.”.

By Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Alice Caputo