Beyond the Jordan
Beyond the Jordan : where humanity meets divinity
Here the divine bends over humanity once again… Here the old & New testament meet:
the Jordan River would draw its trail descending from the heights of Mount Harmon into the depths of the Jordan valley where along its banks grew a path of redemption.
About the year 28-29 AD, when John the Baptist appeared at Bethany (Bayt ‘Anya) on the far side of the Jordan River, sinless Jesus joined in the line of penitents asking for baptism. That day heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and a voice was heard, “You are My beloved...with whom I am well-pleased.”
For years after this incident, the site remained a place for spiritual contemplation and worship, and the faithful make pilgrimages to this holy spot.
In the account of many pilgrims among which Tudius, and Theodosius (around 530 AD), one can read a description of a church at Bethany. They notified that this house of worship was built on platforms during the reign of the Emperor Anastasius (518 AD) to prevent any damage that might be caused by the flooding of the river.
The story goes that one monk, in his way to Mount Sinai, took a rest in the place that is now known as “The Bethany Sapsaphas” (Place of the Willows). He saw a vision of John the Baptist telling him: "This little cave is greater than Mount Sinai.
Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself has come in here to pay me a visit". Convinced and recovered from an illness he caught on the road, the monk transformed the cave into a church for the hermits living in the area.
This account met with recent archeological excavations that have uncovered remains of this church on the eastern bank of the river. All the pilgrims mention the pole implanted in the middle of the river bearing the sign of the Cross (as an indication of where Christ’s baptism took place).
Another pilgrim named Arculf, around 680AD, also mentions a church on vaults.
He gives this description (speaking of himself in the third person): “The holy, venerable spot at which the Lord was baptized by John is permanently covered by the water of the River Jordan. Arculf, who reached the place, and swam across the river both ways, says that a tall wooden cross has been set up on the holy place...The position of this cross where the Lord was baptized, is on the near side of the river bed.
From this cross, a stone causeway supported on arches stretches to the bank, and people approaching the cross go down a ramp and return up by it to reach the bank.
Right at the river's edge stands a small rectangular church which was built, so it is said, at the place where the Lord's clothes were placed when he was baptized. The fact that it is supported on four stone vaults makes it usable, since the water, which comes in from all sides, is underneath it. It has a tiled roof and in the upper part there is a great monastery for monks, which has been built on the brow of a small hill nearby, overlooking the church.
There is also a church built there in honor of Saint John Baptist which, together with the monastery, is enclosed in a single masonry wall. “
Clearly, Arculf identified the baptismal site on the west bank of his day, but we’re not going to worry about banks, because the river shifts.
With course of time, the site was bit by bit neglected. the area returned under the control of local tribes then it suffered number of wars, followed by the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict… all this turned the East of the Jordan an unsafe place to go, and with no guarantee of safety, pilgrimage to the site stopped.
However, after the 1994 Peace Treaty and the de-mining of the area, mosaic and marble remnants were found. In total, the remains of five different churches, built at separate times, were found on this site today known as ‘Al-Maghtas’ in Arabic.
So, we can conclude from the archaeological discoveries, the biblical text, and the Byzantine and Medieval writers’ accounts that with the track of time a complexity in various events took place on the banks of the Jordan River opposite Jericho and extending 3 km east, up a dry river-bed called Wadi el-Kharrar.
Today, upon the banks of the river, a memorial stands to commemorate the baptism of Christ and also the Israelite’s crossing to the Promised Land. Near the spring of the Kharrar valley is the cave of John the Baptist. A church and monastery were built to preserve the memory of Bethany, where John baptized his followers and where Jesus went to meet him.
In March of 2000, Blessed John Paul II, the successor of the apostle Peter, became the first pope to make a pilgrimage to this site nearby which Christ first met Peter.
And on the footsteps of this blessed pilgrim, faithful hearts can still hear the rebirth of the echo of a voice crying out: ‘Follow the path of God and make firm His path.’
From this holy scene where divinity was “seen”, a truth lights the human soul: Baptism restores the person to a pure icon of God launching a path of faith in action that is capable of turning the wilderness of the heart into an oasis of life, love and magnificence.