2011
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“Seek the Lord while he is near”: the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan

Jericho, 27th October 2011

Leaving Jerusalem behind us and entering the Desert of Judea, across the plain of Jericho, not far from the road for Tell es-Sultan, on the site of the ancient Jericho, which leads to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Quarantine, there is the place where, since the 5th century, the Baptism of Jesus has been remembered. Here, close to the banks of the River Jordan, the different Christian confessions can celebrate their functions on the feast of the Epiphany which also includes the liturgy for the Baptism of the Lord. Reopened to the public by the Israeli authorities a few months ago, the site is once again a destination for pilgrimage by many faithful. The Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land, who normally commemorate the Baptism of Christ on the last Thursday of October, organized the traditional pilgrimage here today for the last time on this date as, from 2012, it will be aligned with the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church with the traditional celebration for the Baptism of the Lord on the first Sunday in January, after the feast of the Epiphany (6th January).

Many of the Franciscan community, led by the Custos of the Holy Land, Brother Pierbattista Pizzaballa, took part in this moving celebration, which also attracted many local Christians, not only from the neighbouring Israeli and Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, Jericho and Bethlehem, but also from Galilee and other more distant regions. There were also many pilgrims from different countries who met at the Jordan for the occasion and joined in prayer in this holy place. After the sung procession, which covered a short stretch of road in the desert, along which the ruins of ancient places of worship could clearly be seen at different points, the hundreds of participants gathered around the small chapel with the altar not far from the Jordan and in the adjacent covered area.

The Holy Mass, during which the renewal of the baptismal promises was celebrated, was presided by the Father Custos, with Brother Artemio Vitores, Custodial Vicar, and numerous brothers and other concelebrant priests. The Consul-General of Spain in Jerusalem, Alfonso Portabales Vasquez, was also present at the ceremony. The Franciscan concelebrants included Brother Stephane Milovitch, currently the Guardian of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Brother Quirico Calella, the guardian of the Latin Church of St. John the Baptist in Akko, where he is also the Head of the Terra Santa School and he also brought with him a group of children from his school in Akko, who gave a delightful lively and enthusiastic touch to the whole day.
After Holy Mass, many wanted to get close to the Jordan and bathe in its waters, bring their children close to the water, symbolically pour some over their heads, recalling the penitential act done so many times here by St. John the Baptist and which Jesus himself, at the beginning of His public ministry, also accepted (Matthew 3,13-17).

The morning continued with a visit to the Greek Orthodox Monastery built on Mount Quarantine, the name of which dates back to the Middle Ages and is linked to the memory, which has been preserved here since the 4th century, of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert. The very beautiful monastery, set half-way up the rock face, on the mountains that are the backdrop to Tell es-Sultan and which dominate the plain of Jericho from the north-west, was built at the end of the 19th century by Orthodox monks around the grottoes where the hermits of the desert had lived since the 5th century. After following the path of steps that lead to the monastery, the group, led by Brother Artemio Vitores, stopped on the threshold of the building for a brief moment of prayer, accompanied by a reading, in Italian, Spanish and Arabic, of the evangelical passage of the temptations of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4,1-11). Brother Artemio also recalled that 25 years earlier, on this very date, 27th October, Pope John Paul II brought the leaders of the different religions to Assisi for the first meeting of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world. As Assisi celebrates this anniversary in a special way, with the presence of Pope Benedict XVI at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the Christians of the Holy Land also join Rome and the Universal Church is remembering that religions can never be a reason of conflict and violence, but a privileged way of building peace and reciprocal comprehension. In the monastery, everybody visited the church, corresponding to an ancient grotto, and the small sanctuary reached by climbing a few steps. Here, on the western wall, there is a niche carved out of the rock where there is a stone, marked by a cross, which indicates the place traditionally believed to be the place of the first temptation of Jesus. A splendid view can be enjoyed from this spot.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55,6), is the exhortation of the Prophet Isaiah. Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Through the immersion in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus united himself to us. Baptism is, so to speak, the bridge that he has built between him and us, the road by which he is accessible to us; it is the divine rainbow over our life, the promise of the great yes of God, the gateway to hope and, at the same time, the sign that indicates the road we must take in an active and joyous way to meet him and feel loved by him.”

By Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Marco Gavasso

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