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Christmas in Bethlehem
Catholics of Bethlehem Celebrate at Qasr El Yahud and the Mount of Temptation
The Baptism of the Lord Celebration is a feast commemorating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by the John the Baptist. The event is described in the Gospel of Matthew: "Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John" (Matt 3:13). In the Roman Catholic Church, as set by the Pope Paul VI, the holiday is celebrated always on the first Sunday after the feast of Epiphany on the 6th of January. The feast marks the end of the liturgical season of Christmas.
The Catholic Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem organized transportation for representatives of the church's local community to Qasr El Yahud, the Baptismal Site of Jesus. Fr. Heitham from Iraq, and now serving in Bethlehem, was the leader of our group. There were also three Catholic priests from Poland on board our bus.
Along the way to the baptismal site of Qasr El Yahud we passed the beautiful 5th Century Orthodox Monastery of St. Gerasimos, situated on the outskirts of Jericho. The monastery commemorates the desert hermit Gerasimos, who was able to transcend a wall dividing him from a wounded lion called Jordanes, to heal the beast.
Baptismal Site of Jesus
Finally, we arrived to Qasr El Yahud, situated on the west side of the Jordan River and widely recognized as the most likely site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus. As we reached the bank of the Jordan River, we encountered many people, likely om their ‘30's, laughing while getting baptized or symbolically re-baptized. A priest was dipping their heads in the river three times each.
At the same time, the Franciscan Brothers were were preparing for their very first full mass service in Qaser el Yahud on the Feast of Baptism of the Lord.
The mass was celebrated by the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa. During the mass the part of Gospel of Matthew was read: As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." (Matt 3:16-17).
Probably, many of us in this holy place, looking at the waters of the Jordan River have imagined the scene of the baptism: John pouring water on Jesus' head and the Holy Spirit - dove flying down on His arm.
Like Pope Paul II used to do on the day of Baptism of the Lord in the Sistine Chapel (Vatican), Fr. Ibrahim of Jericho Parish baptized several little children on the site of the Jordan River. All five children looked beautiful in their white clothes. One of the boys also wore an aureole and wings of an angel - and he looked just gorgeous.
Next Stop: Visiting the Mount of Temptation
The Gospels say that after Jesus was baptized, the spirit led him into the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days and forty nights. He went to the Mount of Temptation, where the devil tried to tempt him. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1-2)
That is why, after the mass on the Jordan River, our group decided to follow to the Greek Orthodox monastery of Qarantaln situated on the Mount of Temptation in Jericho, which commemorates this event. It is believed that this monastery was built in the 6th century over the cave where Christ stayed. This spot is one of the holy sites said to have been identified by Queen Helena in her pilgrimage of 326 AD.
The summit of the mount is located about 360 metres above sea level, so to reach the monastery we needed to make a steep climb. So we opted for the Jericho Cable Car - an easier and faster way to the top. The Jericho Cable Car is located at Tel-es-Sultan, also known as Tel Jericho or Ancient Jericho, the place where the ruins of the ancient 10 000 years old Jericho are located. We saw the excavations from above, as the cable car passed over them.
The view from cable car window was spectacular but once on top there was an even more impressive panoramic view of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea.
We entered the monastery trough a beautifully carved door and followed other pilgrims in the direction of a grey stone, which marks the place of Jesus' temptation. It was an amazing feeling to touch the symbolic stone and to stand in that particular place, and as I did so I felt God's spirit.
After the long day in the sun of Jericho, we took a well deserved break at Sultan's Bar on the Mount of Temptation and sat there enjoying the view, treating ourselves to a freshly squeezed mix of pomegranate and orange juices and then we sat back all together spiritually refreshed from the day's activities.
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Beata M. Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.
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Bethlehem is my new home since September 2010. This charming town in the Holy Land is definitely worth a visit! Discover Bethlehem with my blog :-) Other places are coming soon...