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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.
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.
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."
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.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and [John the Baptist] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on [Jesus]. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:16-17)
The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6 on the Julian calendar) is the third most important day on the calendar behind Passover and Pentecost for the Eastern Orthodox churches, and it is little wonder why.
Also known as the Theophany - manifestation of the divine - the Feast of the Epiphany marks that moment in scripture that birthed Christian faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the promised Messiah. It is also the foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Just as Christian pilgrims have been doing for nearly two thousand years, the Feast of the Epiphany begins with a short journey from Jerusalem to the Jordan River. Even the route is identical, following the same natural pathway down through the mountains of Judah into the Judean wilderness and up to the banks of that sacred stream.
PIlgrims at the Epiphany ceremony at Qasr El Yahud, on the Jordan River
Today, we are able to make the journey in about half-an-hour aboard comfortable passenger buses to Qasr El Yahud, the site many believe to be the authentic site where John baptised Jesus. But for much of Christian history, the trip took a bit longer, and often required an overnight stop along the way, and so it would be negligent to fail to mention that most famous of way stations, the Inn of the Good Samaritan. Situated just off the road from Jerusalem to the Jordan, the Inn of the Good Samaritan served Christian pilgrims journeying to the place of Jesus' baptism for centuries.
The inn has today been transformed into a fascinating museum featuring mosaic floors found among the ruins of ancient synagogues and churches from across Judea and Samaria, the areas most commonly known as the West Bank. In its current capacity, the Inn of the Good Samaritan is a powerful reminder of the religious history permeating the entire area.
Mosaic on display at the Museum of the Good Samaritan
And the Inn of the Good Samaritan is not the only such reminder. Israel Parks Authority guide,Yoav Hermoni, explained that the Judean wilderness is a localized desert, meaning it is very small and far more abundant in natural resources than larger, more desolate deserts. What that means is that the Judean wilderness is the perfect location for monasteries - both in a natural and religious sense - and there are indeed many of them dotting the landscape.
Upon arriving at Jordan, pilgrims must wait upon the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to start the event, but there is no lack of activity in the interim. The atmosphere is festive, to say the least, but also very solemn.
"I am very happy to be here," said Masha, a pious young pilgrim from Moscow who was clearly overwhelmed by the gravity of the event. Stylianos from Thessalonika, Greece didn't speak much English, but expressed a similar gratitude at being able to participate in ceremony.
Qasr al-Yahud, the Arabic name for the location, was identified nearly 1,700 years ago by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, as the place not only where Jesus was baptized, but also where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Hence the Arabic name, which means "the Jews' cutting [of the river]."
Both the eastern and western sides of the river have seen development by Jordan and Israel, respectively, and today boast ample facilities for visiting pilgrims.
Following a lengthy, but much anticipated procession from the nearby Monastery of John the Baptist, the Greek patriarch pronounces a series of blessings at a small chapel near the river and then proceeds to the water line.
At the river, the patriarch conducted a short ritual that centered around the releasing of three doves signifying the revelation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
While the Jordan is very cold this time of year, that didn't stop many pilgrims and priests from washing their feet, hands and heads in its holy waters following the ceremony.
Ultimately, the Feast of the Epiphany is a brief event, but also a very important one. Significant enough for 20,000 Christian pilgrims to make their way to the Jordan River, most of them arriving from abroad.
Lydia Weitzman, Foreign Press Adviser for Israel's Ministry of Tourism, said there has been a strong effort to return the focus on Israel and the surrounding areas to that of the Holy Land. She said that while Israel has the same great weather and beaches as Cyprus and other eastern Mediterranean destinations, it offers so much more.
That strategy appears to be paying off. This past year saw a significant rise in tourism to Israel, and 69 percent of all visitors were Christians, most of whom consider themselves pilgrims. Of all tourists, Catholics come in the most significant numbers, totaling 39% of all tourists to Israel. And visiting Qasr al-Yahud and the Inn of the Good Samaritan demonstrates that there is a real commitment to adequately accommodate those Christian pilgrims and ensure that their journey is a meaningful and spiritual one.
Ryan Jones writes for www.travelujah.com, the leading Christian social network focused on Holy land tours. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.
"Christ is born! Glorify Him!" is the great message delivered among Orthodox Christians worldwide during Christmas, the holiday which brings in the true flavor of the birth of Our Lord. The fragrance of the nativity of Jesus Christ is celebrated with much grace in the Orthodox world.
Orthodox Christmas is truly the celebration of the great mystery of the Incarnation: The mystery in which God the Word became man in order to redeem human beings; God became one among us and incarnation affirms the importance of both man and the whole of creation.
Orthodox Christianity - Fasting
Holy fasting is one of the most important parts of the orthodox nativity celebrations. Eastern orthodox Churches fast for 40 days where many of the oriental orthodox churches hold a 25 day fasting. The Coptic Orthodox Church observes an additional fast for three days before the beginning of the Nativity Fast, to commemorate the miraculous moving of the mountain of Mukattam (Cairo) at the hands of Saint Simon the Tanner in the year 975, during the rule of the Muslim Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz Li-Deenillah.
The Armenian Church observes fasting one week prior to the nativity celebrations. Orthodox Church stresses the complete abstinence from non-vegetarian food and other pleasures during fasting periods. Special recipes of food will be cooked and served: Lenten bread and other food such as nuts and fresh dried fruits, vegetables and herbs such as potatoes, peas, and garlic, mushroom soup, slow-cooked kidney beans with potatoes, garlic and seasoning, Bobal'ki (small biscuits combined with sauerkraut or poppy seed with honey), bowl of honey, baked cod etc. The type of food and activity may vary depending on the particular country's culture and traditions.
For more on Orthodox recipes click here.
Dates of Nativity
Due to calendar differences Orthodox Churches celebrate nativity at different dates. Most of the eastern orthodox churches such as the Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Russian Orthodox, Coptic and Syrian celebrate Christmas on January 7, 2012 - which is according to the Gregorian calendar, and which day is also known also as Old Christmas Day. This is because 11 days were lost to account for the calendar differences once the Julian calendar was created). The Gregorian calendar predates the Julian calendar which identifies Christmas, as being on 25th of December, and is celebrated by Latin Catholics.
The Armenian Christmas is celebrated on January 6th, which coincides with Epiphany which represents the feast of the Manifestation of Christ. Its theme is the baptism of Jesus in the Eastern church. Hence the Armenians celebrate Christmas and Epiphany together' on a single day which is called 'Theophany'.
Pilgrims being baptised at the Jordan River during the Feast of Epiphany - Photo credit:Travelujah-Holy Land Tours
The Armenian Orthodox will celebrate Christmas on January 18th.
Several traditions, One Faith
Different Orthodox churches have customs practices and traditions according to their land of origin, but at the same time all churches are united in one faith. It is the same expression of the undivided church at different places in the world. The practices and traditions observed in orthodox churches definitely have biblical reflections. For example let us consider the case of Christmas tree. Many people relate Christmas tree to pagan tradition. But Orthodoxy has a very different view on Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is derived, not from the pagan yule tree, but from the paradise tree adorned with apples on December 24/January 7 in honor of Adam and Eve. Hence the Orthodox Church considers the Christmas tree completely biblical in origin.
For more information on the origin of the Christmas tree in the Orthodox Church, click here.
At many places Orthodox Christians walk to rivers and seas in procession as part of the nativity liturgy. Holy Christmas songs (canons) are sung from the Holy Day of "Vavedenje" on the 4th of December, until the 13th of January, which is the Day of the New Year and is often called Small Christmas. For more information on this Feast click here:
Santa Claus for Western Christians is St. Nicholas for Orthodox Christians. He was also known as ‘Nikolaos of Myra', a historic 4th-century saint and Greek Orthodox Bishop of Myra, now based in modern Turkey.
For Orthodox Christians, Christmas is a day for inner thoughts, reflections, repentance and healing.
Travelujah's Schedule of Orthodox Christmas and Epiphany Events in the Holy Land
January 5, Eve of Epiphany
5 a.m. and 7: 30 a.m. at the Manger Grotto for holy masses
11 a.m. at the Tomb of Rachel the Custos of the Holy Land is welcomed by Latin Parish Priest and other representatives of Bethlehem
1:45 p.m. at St. Catherine for Pontifical vespers and procession to the Grotto
3:30 p.m. at St. Catherine for Office of Readings and procession to the Grotto
January 6, Epiphany
Midnight at the Grotto
Holy Masses till 9 a.m. with an interruption between 1 and 2:30 a.m. approximately
7 a.m. at St. Catherine for holy mass
10 a.m. at St. Catherine for Pontifical mass in Latin and Arabic
3:30 p.m. at St. Catherine for solemn vespers and solemn traditional procession to eh Grotto; Veneration of Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh
January 8, Feast of the Baptism of the Lord at Qasr El Yahud
The fraternity of the Custody of the Holy Land holds its traditional pilgrimage to the baptismal site of Qasr El Yahud on the river Jordan on that date. All are welcome to take part in this special event.
Mass at Qasr El Yahud - 10 am
Wishing you all a blessed Nativity and peaceful New Year.
The Feast of the Epiphany, which means manifestation, is observed on Jan. 6 for Catholics and on Jan. 18 for Orthodox Christians and celebrates the revelation of Jesus as son of God in the flesh.
For Catholics, the Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to Jesus after his birth in Bethlehem while for Orthodox Christians, the feast remembers his baptism and revelation by God in public as the son of God.
On Jan. 6, the Catholic church in the Holy Land will observe the feast with a solemn entry into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This event is considered the conclusion of the Christmas season.
"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.' When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, ar eby no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel."' ... After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way." Matthew 2:1-12
A procession from Jerusalem to Mar Elias into Bethlehem will take place including a stop at Rachel's Tomb, where the parish priest of Bethlehem and parishioners from Beit Sahour and Bethlehem wait to join the march.
Scouts go ahead of the processional, intended to mark the route of the Magi to Manger Square, usually around noon on that day. A special mass is said in the church. The Catholic celebration of the Epiphany coincides with the Orthodox celebration of Christmas, which starts with a series of masses that night.
For the Orthodox church, the Epiphany recounts Jesus' experience as an adult being revealed as the son of God.
"Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, 'I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?' But Jesus answering said to him, 'Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.' Then he permitted Him. After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.'" Matthew 3:13-17
This feast is the third most important day on the calendar behind Easter and Pentecost for the Eastern Orthodox churches. Also known as the Theophany - manifestation of the divine - the Feast of the Epiphany marks the foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
In a much different celebration than the Catholic Epiphany, thousands of Christian pilgrims descend to the Jordan River, specifically to Qasr El Yahud, the site many believe to be the authentic site where John baptized Jesus.
Photo: Travelujah -Greek Patriarchate Theopolis III releasing the dove at Epiphany ceremonies at Qasr El Yahud;
There, the faithful, sometimes numbering 20,000 and most from abroad, will be baptized themselves following in the footsteps of their Lord. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem leads the event which includes a procession from the nearby Monastery of John the Baptist and a series of blessings at a small chapel near the river.
Three doves are symbolically released into the sky to represent the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The joyous occasion can seem a bit raucous with dozens of young people playing pipes, beating drums and singing.
This event, marking the end of the Orthodox Christmas season, coincides with the Armenian Christmas, which begins on the eve of Jan. 18.
Half day and one day tours are offered to Bethlehem regularly. Learn more about day toursto Bethlehem and Jericho at this link.
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Nicole Jansezian writes for Travelujah, the leading Christian social network focused on connecting Christians to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.
With blustery weather conditions throughout the Holy Land it certainly feels like Christmas, and it still is for many of the world's Orthodox Christians. While Latin Christians celebrated Epiphany on January 6 with a special liturgy at the Church of St. Catherines in Bethlehem and their festivities will continue with the Baptism of the Lord at the River Jordan on January 8, Orthodox Christians including Coptics, Syrians, Greek and Ethiopian Orthdox are now beginning their Christmas celebrations with the Feast of Nativity on January 7. Below are the upcoming religious celebrations in the month of January.
January 8 - Baptism of the Lord at the River Jordan
January 7th - The Nativity of our Lord (Orthodox)
January 14th - New Year, Circumcision
January 18th - Blessing of the Holy Water (River Jordan) (Greek)
January 19th - Blessing of the Holy Water (River Jordan) (Syrian & Copts)
January 19th - Epiphany (Feast of Theophany)
January 20th - St. John the Baptist
January 11th - James the Major and St. John
January 19th - Christmas Day
Custody of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista and Greek Patriarchate, Theopolis III; photo courtesy; Travelujah
For more about the Catholic celebration of Epiphany in the Holy Land view this video showcasing the arrival of Custody of the Holy Land, Fr PierBattista at Manger Square,nd the continuing celebration at St. Catherines on the morning of January 6.