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January 24, 2010January 24, 2010  0 comments  Events

There is a chill in the air as a winter rain sets in over the Jordan Valley. However, for Suheila, a 40 year old Christian from Tel Aviv/Jaffa and her four year old daughter Naala, it's well worth it for a chance at attending a joyous and spiritually uplifting ceremony. Suheila and Naala were two of the estimated 10,000 faithful who turned out for the Feast of Epiphany celebrations on January 18 this year along the banks of the River Jordan.

 

"It makes us feel holier and closer to Jesus," Suheila explains as Naala shyly turns away, wondering what all the fuss is about. "We used to go into the water to be baptized," she told Travelujah, the only Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land.. However, given the crowds that came for the festival, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, citing safety concerns had instead set up vats of water from the river where people could bathe themselves or simply wash their hands and feet.

 

"Pilgrims visiting on other days are allowed into the water," Lydia Weitzman, the Foreign Press Adviser for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism assured us. "The Ministry has invested millions of shekels to build a deck and to make the water safe for baptism," she continued.

 

On the Jordanian side of the river, a smaller area has been erected and some of the faithful there, dressed in white did brave the frigid waters for a chance to be baptized in the same river where Jesus was baptized 2,000 years ago. For the believer and Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land, there is no place which has more spiritual resonance for a baptism.

 

The site is known in Arabic as Qasr El Yahud. Recognized as a holy place since the fourth century A.D, this is the site, according The New Testament where Jesus was baptized for the first time by John the Baptist, thereby allowing him to have Revelation. It is considered to be the third holiest site in Israel for Christians and is rapidly becoming a regular stop for Christian pilgrims all year round.

 

Most Christian pilgrims have never heard of Qasr El Yahud. Rather, they tend to visit the more famous Yardenit, the more commonly used location for baptism in the Holy Land, south of Tiberias. However, most biblical scholars believe that Qasr El Yahud is the true baptismal site and the place where it is most holy to receive a baptism. The fact that it is so much closer to Jerusalem (around a forty minute ride) and the holy sites there only makes it all the more tempting for pilgrims to visit.

 

The area had lain in ruins for years, being visited by only a handful of pilgrims who knew of its significance, before the Israeli Ministry of Tourism decided to make a capital investment, pouring some eight million shekels (about $2.15 million) into the site with an additional two million shekels allocated for adding the finishing touches to area.

 

Qasr El Yahud

The site is expected to open with regular visiting hours once renovations are complete, perhaps as early as April, 2010 according to Yael Zilberstein, a representative of the Israel Defense Forces' Civil Administration. In the interim, tour groups can arrange for visits by calling the Israel Nature and Parks Authority at 02-654-1255. Once it is open regularly of course, the site is expected to be visited by significantly more pilgrims as opposed to only special occasions, such as the Feast of Epiphany celebrations.

 

On the day of the Feast of the Epiphany, three groups of churches, the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Ethiopian churches each gathered in their respective chapels to celebrate the event. The largest and most recognized event is that of the Greek Orthodox Church. The day began inside the chapel, where the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III offered his blessings to each of the priests in his order who sang prayers in Latin. The final benediction was offered by the Patriarch himself and after that, the faithful gathered in a long procession down a windy road heading toward the ultimate destination, the River Jordan.

Saadidan, a lay leader of the local Orthodox Church in Jericho led the joyous parade, twirling his baton with a group of drummers and singers behind him. Asked about his feelings on the occasion, he was out of breath and smiled, saying only that he was "very happy" to be there.

 

Saaladan, lay leader from Jericho

Adrian, a Romanian priest who had come from Bucharest for the celebrations had a similar reaction, simply smiling and pointing to the sky, as if to say, "this is the place where God came to earth." He explained that he'd come every year for the event and that being here, at the edge of the Jordan River reminded him of what it means to be a Christian.

Of course, the festivities are not without some controversy. The area of Qasr El Yahud is situated within the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war, just a few kilometers away from Jericho. When asked about coordination with the Palestinian Authority, Ms. Weitzman expressed her hope that the newly renovated site would offer a "bridge for peace," allowing people of "all faiths to come together."

 

Doves being released by Greek Patriarch

Watching the doves of peace released by Theophilos III at the conclusion of the ceremony and seeing the smile on young Naala's face as they flutter in the breeze, we can only pray that Ms. Weitzman's words will indeed prove prophetic.

 

 

 


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