The Holy Land is like no other

By EDRIE ROYALS,

January 8 was the time on the 2018 Christian liturgical calendar for remembering and celebrating the baptism of Jesus. On that day my thoughts returned to the Holy Land as they so often do. I recalled the pilgrimage fellow travelers and I made that began with a visit to Jordan and the river that bears its name.

All of us travelled many hours and long distances to reach this Middle East country. Our common purpose was to experience places where Jesus walked.

Jordan is bounded on the north by Syria, the east by Iraq, the south and southeast by Saudi Arabia, and the west by Israel and the Dead Sea. A small piece of land on its southwest tip meets the Gulf of Aqaba and allows the country access to the Red Sea.

We began the pilgrimage in the capital city of Amman, a bustling place of nearly three million people. Known as Philadelphia in ancient times, it pre-dates the birth of Christ. A coliseum dating back to Roman times is an integral part of the city and is used today for some outdoor events. On a hill overlooking the city are ruins of the Citadel built during the Neolithic period of the Stone Age. It is a place where the past and present, the old and new, coexist peacefully. Men and women dressed in modern, western clothes mix with others wearing traditional gowns and scarves that cover their heads; and some women cover their faces. 

From our local guide we learned about the love and respect Jordanians have for their king, Abdullah II, who governs with a democratically elected parliament. They recognize he has improved the country with international trade agreements, good health care, and a progressive government; and they believe he is a trusted leader in the Middle East working for peace.

We experienced warmth and hospitality from the Jordanian people we met. There was peace and tolerance - no fear, no ill will.

Engulfed in desert heat and immersed in a rusty-colored sandy land, we were a long way from the familiar sights and sounds of home. We were in a country that is primarily Muslim. Our guide was Muslim. We were listening to haunting calls for prayer from towering minarets that pierced the sky, interacting with people whose native language was Arabic, and eating foods prepared according to centuries-old recipes.

We began seeing other parts of this ancient land when we left the beautiful, modern-day LeMeridien Hotel with its middle-eastern decor and ambience, boarded our travel bus, and started the westerly journey from Amman to the Jordan River. The scenery soon became desert-like with barren mountains and hills. Occasionally, the emptiness of the landscape was broken by temporary settlements of gypsies and bedouins, their tents and movable structures mixed in with camels, goats, sheep and other livestock that shared the nomadic lifestyle.

 

When we reached the Jordan River site, we walked along a fenced pathway which our guide told us had been cleared of land mines. The thought of explosives just a few feet away from our protected area seemed unreal and, at the same time, matter-of-fact to me and maybe to all of us. No one showed any outward response or spoke a word. We were intensely focused on reaching the river and feeling the unrelenting heat.

Could this really be the place where Jesus encountered his cousin John the Baptist, who recognized him as the Son of God? The exact locations for most of the Holy Land sites are not precisely known; but legend and oral history, often supported by archeological findings, give credibility to the general locale of most places.

As we neared the river, we came upon an archeological site with roofed, open air buildings covering excavated ruins. Beneath one roof was a stone structure, rectangular in shape, believed to designate the actual baptismal site. Another roofed area covered the remains of a mosaic floor thought to be part of an early church. Nearby was a stream of water named John the Baptist Creek. Maybe this was the actual site where Jesus was baptized and afterwards,

The heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

(Matthew 3:16-17).

 

As we walked the short, downhill distance to the river, I began to see water that reminded me of the muddy Mississippi. The banks on both sides of the narrow river were covered in waist-high reedy plants. At our viewing site, the water was approximately 20 feet wide. Two Jordanian soldiers guarded our area, a silent, living reminder of a region in conflict. We looked across the river at the country of Israel and saw people donning white robes and being baptized - young and old - singing and rejoicing. Most of us sat quietly on risers and watched - immersed in our private thoughts and prayers and feeling grateful for this privileged, peaceful moment in time.

More than 2000 years ago somewhere along this River Jordan - perhaps where we were or close by - Jesus was baptized.

Edrie George Royals is a Northsider.

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