Traditionally, the 12th day of Christmas is marked by Eastern Orthodox, Catholics and some mainline Protestants as the day the three kings visited the baby Jesus. For Eastern Rite Christians, Epiphany (also called Theophany) emphasizes the revelation of Jesus as the son of God through his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. Thousands of believers make pilgrimage on that day to the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus.
And that’s where the controversy begins.
While Israel has long claimed that Jesus was baptized on the Israeli side of the river, increasingly scholars are lining up to support archaeological research showing the baptism site is actually in Jordan. When Pope Francis visited the Holy Land last spring, he made a point of holding Mass at the Jordanian baptism site, lending additional credibility to the claim.
Called “Bethany beyond the Jordan” in the Bible, scholars point to both textual and archaeological evidence that the site is on the east bank of the river. For many Christians, the baptism site is the third holiest site of Christianity, joining Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where he is believed to be buried.
The baptism site itself combines a carefully controlled archaeological dig surrounded by the construction of a dozen new churches and guesthouses. Cleared of mines after the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, the area is carefully protected by the Jordanian government to preserve numerous archaeological treasures being unearthed daily.
One excavation revealed remnants of a third-century church with a cruciform baptismal structure where early pilgrims came to be baptized. Carved into the stone are thousands of small crosses, signs early Christians would leave after being baptized. Another dig has unearthed what is believed to be the cave where John the Baptist lived.
The Roman Catholic Church is now constructing a 32,000-square-foot church and center on the grounds to welcome throngs of tourists. Last year on Epiphany, thousands of pilgrims from dozens of countries gathered for Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican worship services at various churches in the area. This year, the Jordanian tourism board believes even more pilgrims will flock to the site, bolstered by the blessing of Pope Francis and the growing list of endorsements from the archbishop of Canterbury to American evangelical pastor Rick Warren, among others.
Jordan, a country that relies heavily on tourism, uses the slogan: “Jordan, the birthplace of Christianity,” hoping to draw more Christian visitors to the Muslim-majority country. In addition to the baptism site, biblical tours include Mount Nebo, Madaba, Petra, and other sites mentioned in the Bible.
On the Jordanian bank, visitors have a clear view of pilgrims being baptized on the Israeli site, just a few yards across the muddy river. Israeli and Jordanian soldiers stand guard on either side, while tourists sing hymns and step into the river.
The main Jordanian baptism site is a few yards down the river, where it widens and there is better access for those who want to be immersed in the waters. An ancient baptismal font has been restored for those who prefer sprinkled or poured baptisms.
Although Christians are a small minority in Jordan, they worship openly and many hold high positions in the government and business. Christian tourism is an increasingly important source of revenue to this country that is providing shelter to refugees from Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries in the region.
While the Middle-East and other places in the world are contemplating the violent aspects of religious fundamentalism; here we have evidence of the peaceful observance of Epiphany – the Revelation of Jesus – that involves the celebration of his Baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The Season of Epiphany embraces, in the liturgy of the Church, particular incidents in the Life of Jesus that revealed his divine/human nature.
Along with Christians throughout the world, we today in New Zealand have celebrated this ancient commemoration of Jesus’ Jewish Baptism and anointing by the Holy Spirit to exercise his ministry of redemption for all who choose to enter into its provenance by virtue of their own Christian Baptism into the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus for themselves.
Because of the similarity between the circumstances of their appearance in the history of Israel, Jesus and John the Baptist were often linked as Prophets of the coming Messianic Age. John, however, himself confessed that he was only the ‘fore-runner’ of Jesus, even though he had his own disciples and was used by God to point to Jesus as the true Messiah and to commission Jesus as the Anointed Son of God.
John’s Baptism was one of enabling repentance of Jews who had lost their understanding of the prophetic call to ready themselves for the promised Messiah. Jesus, as a Jew, was called by God to share in John’s Baptism as proof of his Jewishness – the result of which humble submission enabled Jesus to fully understand his own calling to be the Messiah. This was accomplished in a scriptural reference to the appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the sound of God’s voice affirming Jesus as God’s ‘well-beloved Son’. The human Jesus was thus affirmed by God as God’s Son.
After this ‘Epiphany’ of Jesus, we learn that he was ‘driven into the wilderness to be tested by Satan’. His victory over the 3 temptations – each of which was calculated to encourage Jesus to exert his divine nature, in ways that would have undercut the efficacy of his calling to share the common humanity of those he was sent by God to redeem – proved that the Spirit of God was within him and would empower him for the ministry that was uniquely his own.
Although this Feast of the Baptism of Jesus demonstrates his empowerment for ministry, it is not to be confused with Christian Baptism, which was to mark out the followers of Jesus – mostly after his death and resurrection – that would become their empowerment for ministry as his followers in the Church. This Baptism, as John the Baptist clearly stated, would be of Jesus and accompanied by the gift of the Holy Spirit. The later form of Baptism would become the gateway through which the followers of Jesus would become members of ‘The Body of Christ, The Church’.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand