Sitting in church today on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I was reminded of my visit to the baptismal site on the banks of the Jordan east of Jerusalem (Qasr al-Yahud). It was a powerful experience.
Much has changed since Jesus’ time. The baptismal site lies at the heart of a sensitive boundary between Israel and Jordan. Here the Jordan River is not much wider than 20 feet and marks the border between the two countries.
Traveling to the Israeli bank of the baptismal site was impossible not long ago. Today it is open. However, since you are entering restricted space you must stop at a military check point before entering.
Past the check point you find yourself on a long road with mine fields on either side. Bunkers and several abandoned monasteries line the road. Standing around are Israeli security. On the Jordanian side of the river are armed guards as well.
The military presence around the site made me quite sad, but in the Holy Land I had come to expect such things. As I dipped my hand into the murky water, I thought back to the gospel account of Christ’s baptism. I felt the current climate betrayed the joy and splendor of the gospel narrative.
On further reflection perhaps I was wrong. Just as I was nervous and perhaps a bit frightened, I am sure those who heard the voice of God and saw Christ’s baptism in the river were nervous and frightened as well. Of course my experience was a bit different, but to think that they experienced tranquility at the sight of Christ’s baptism now seems a bit naive.
The situation in which many holy sites and Christians find themselves in the Holy Land brings tears to my eyes. While it is a beautiful place with many wonderful people, Christianity’s presence in the Holy Land is being relegated to history and textbooks. But just as all hope looked lost on Good Friday and was restored a thousand-fold on that Easter morn, I pray that hope will spring anew in the Holy Land…and soon.
As Pope Francis prepares for his trip to the Holy Land in May to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, we ought to pray for his journey. We also ought to pray for the day when Jews, Christians, and Muslims may live in peace and harmony. But above all we ought to pray for a continuing Christian presence in the Holy Land.