Jordan, John the Baptist, Elijah and Moses – and Mosaics!

Sunday, 18th November, 2012
Amman, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Mt Nebo, Madaba.

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It was an early start, leaving at 7:30am. Peter was awake already when I woke at 5:30am, and given that we were getting a wake up call at 6am, it didn’t seem worthwhile going back to sleep. We packed, had breakfast and boarded the bus, heading west toward the Jordan.

The wind had calmed down, but there was still plenty of dust in the air. It was a cloudy day, not too warm, very pleasant for outdoor walking.

We were driven down to the North end of the Dead Sea on the Jordan side (the East Bank). The descent down caused a change in air pressure which could be seen to physically collapse empty drink bottles. The area through which we drove was often utterly barren. We entered the “Baptism site”, and paused at a mosaic of Elijah being taken up in the chariot. In the distance, across the other side of the Jordan, was a large city. The spot where we had paused, less than a couple of kilometres from the Baptism site, was the spot traditionally associated with Elijah’s assumption. The city in the distance was Jericho. “Take a good look,” Rosemary said, “we might not get any closer” (referring to the unrest in that part of the land).

There is a connection between Elijah, Jericho and the Baptism of St John, of course.
1) John, Jesus said, was “Elijah”, heralding the coming of the Messiah. (The mode of John’s diet and dress described in the gospels is intended to strengthen this connection)
2) Jericho was, of course, a reminder that it was in this region where Joshua led the children of Israel across the Jordan to the Promised Land.
3) The Jordan crossing was reminiscent of the Red Sea crossing, and indeed in one sense completes it, and calls to mind the same symbolism of liberation from slavery and entry into the promised inheritance.
4) Add this to John’s baptismal ministry, and you see how he heralds the coming of the Messiah by engaging in a “water crossing” from slavery to sin to liberation in Jeshua the Messiah.
Neat, eh? And geographically it all comes together in this place.

And it is quite a place too. One of my fellow pilgrims said “Yesterday (Jerash) was good, but this is better”. I don’t know if I would say “better” is quite the right word, but for all the splendour of Jerash, there is an overwhelming wondrous atmosphere at Bethany beyond the Jordan. For a start, the walk down to the River reminded me of walking through the bush in of some parts of the Mallee where I grew up: stony, dry, rubbly soil, and short shrubby trees (tamarinds, according to one pilgrim). Then there was the deep quiet of the place. In other circumstances, I would have described the silence as “dead”, but here, it was anything but. Later, when sitting down by the river, I had the sense that I could just sit here all day without moving or becoming bored. Then there was a smell in the air which reminded me of a mix between the smell of the ocean and the smell of a chook shed. It was a warm, comforting kind of smell. The whole effect was one of stillness and peace.

We walked past the Greek Orthodox Church you will see on all the postcards (appropriately named the Church of St John the Baptist), down to a lookout over the river. “River” is a generous word for what is left of the Jordan today, even by Australian standards. It is about 10 to 15 metres across from side to side, and the flow is very gentle. And yes, one can have some sympathy with Namman the Syrian – it is muddy. Fadi told us that it would once the water level would have been much higher, but that irrigation and damming had taken a lot of water out of the Jordan, to such an extent that the lack of flow may threaten the future of the Dead Sea.

From there we walked around to the archeological site, which has recently unearthed a Church and sunken shrine with steps going down to it from the Church. The design of this complex fits exactly with the descriptions of the site from early accounts going back to the 4th Century, in which the cross-shaped shrine was said to mark the exact point of the baptism itself. Today, there is no water in the spot, but it easy to imagine that there would be, were the river level to be a bit higher. Here, Fr Bhin read the Gospel of Jesus’ baptism by John, and, in my private prayers, I once again renewed my vows by renouncing Satan and all his works and all his ways, and reciting the Apostles’ Creed.

Walking on a little further, we came to the point at the river opposite the West Bank site on the Israeli side. Here the peace was somewhat marred by a guide speaking in Hebrew on the other side through a loud-hailer…but in actual fact the place lost none of its spiritual power. Here there were wooden steps leading down into the water, where we could take off our shoes and wade in, or scoop up handfuls of water to touch to our foreheads. I could happily have sat here for hours.

But we went back, calling in to look at the Church of St John on the way. Next stop: Mt Nebo, the site of the burial of Moses. This involved a long winding climb in the bus up the barren hills to the south of the Baptismal site on the way to Madaba (Arab name is Slyagha). The air was becoming increasingly misty with dust, and by the time we arrived at the look out, we could not even see the Jordan, let alone the land of Israel! We just had to take it on trust that it was out there. We celebrated mass here (Mass of St Moses!) in one of the chapels. The Chapel was not a pretty place, more or less a room with benches for the pilgrims, an altar on one side of the front of the room and a curtained vestry and cupboard of vestments sharing the other corner. A lot of work is currently being done building a massive steel basilica style covering over the old Church on the top of Nebo. This will be very impressive when complete. I didn’t see any Muslim or Jewish pilgrims there when we were there, but Fadi assures me that “on the weekend”(ie. NOT Sunday) there are quite a few non-Christian pilgrims. There is a three-trunked olive tree in the complex which was planted by John Paul II when he visited there, intended to sympolise cooperation between the three faiths.

We had sandwiches and packed lunch at a gift shop on the way to Madaba, a town known for its Roman and Byzantine mosaic floors. The big attraction here is the small section (30 square metres out of an original 100) of the oldest map of the holy land in existence, a mosaic floor map in the Greek Orthodox church of St George. Much could be said about this remarkable piece – google it to see pictures. Madaba was a fairly deserted village until about 140 years ago when some Christian refugees received permission from the Ottoman rulers to establish it as a town again, and to build churches. The Sultan gave his permission, but they were only allowed to build where there had previously been a Christian church. Hence St Georges was built on top of the old Byzantine pilgrim church in which the floor map existed. We also went to the current Cathedral church of Madaba, the Church of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, built upon the ruins of an earlier byzantine church, with an extensive underground tunnel and crypt system. This includes an ancient Moabite well deep underground. We saw several other old church ruins, now covered over to protect the intricate mosaic floors which are really in excellent condition. I would upload pictures, but at this point that is proving a little difficult. Again, just google Madaba and mosaics and you will get the idea.

At the Cathedral, a funeral was just ending (yes, on a Sunday – it is a work day in Jordan). They have a custom here at funerals to serve all guests a kind of aniseed infused wheat mixed with raw sugar, and they shared this special treat with us. It might seem a strange way to “mourn”, but it was explained to us that a funeral is a celebration of the resurrection, and therefore a moment of joy, not sadness. I wonder if the wheat desert is not in some way a reflection upon the saying of Jesus about a grain of wheat falling into the ground…

We couldn’t get to one town today because there was some unrest in the area. So after the Cathedral, we went began the long drive south to Petra, where I am currently writing this in the lobby of the Moevenpick Resort, a very, very nice hotel with good cheap internet connections. I have just managed to speak to my parents (who were up early on Monday morning) on Skype and hope to catch up with my family later in the evening.

We drove here along the main north south highway in Jordan. The countryside around us was mainly desert, with very sparse settlement. Unfortunately, it was dark as we were climbing up into the mountains where Petra is located in the town of Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses). It rained along the way, some of the first rains for the season (although Wadi Musa had some flash flooding last week).

Looking back on today, we had encounters with Elijah, John the Baptist, and Moses. I don’t think we can get to the mount of the Transfiguration north of Galilee because of the Syrian situation, but being near to the wilderness in which these three prophets were active is something.

We are concerned about the current situation in Israel/Palestine on two counts. First we may not be able to visit Bethlehem and Jericho. I told Fr Tony that I would be very disappointed to miss out on this, to which he replied that he would be very annoyed. But in the end, we will take the advice of the local guides and take no unnecessary risks. The other concern is at the other end – Tel Aviv is our planned departure point for Turkey in a week or so. But we are in God’s hands, and the hands of our tour leaders, and I trust both!

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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One Response to Jordan, John the Baptist, Elijah and Moses – and Mosaics!

  1. CG says:

    The “wheat dessert” would have been koliva (or kollyva), and your guess about the symbolism of the wheat grains is correct: see here

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