Friday, July 30, 2010

Jesus' Baptism*

“Ancient Site of Jesus’ Baptism a Cesspool” screamed the headline. A recent story documents the fact, widely known among those who have spent any time in the Holy Land, that the likely site of Jesus’ baptism has become so polluted that it is no longer safe for Christian pilgrims to enter the water. The site, known as Deir Mar Juhanna, or the Monastery of St. John, is about a kilometer or so south of the el-Hajlah ford of the Jordan River. Near the place where the once mighty Jordan emptied into the Dead Sea, the Jordan now has shrunk to a trickle, most of its water drained off further up-river to irrigate crops in the Jordan River Valley. Almost no water now makes it all the way down to the Dead Sea (which is why, incidentally, the Dead Sea is drying up). What little water remains at the ancient site where many believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus is a putrid puddle polluted by untreated sewage from nearby Jericho. For this reason, Israeli authorities have banned Christian baptisms on their side of the river. There is, of course, a mirror site on the Jordanian side that likewise attracts Christian pilgrims, which at this point has not been closed.

The vast majority of Christians who travel to the Holy Land, however, will not be affected by the closure. Most Christian pilgrims never visit Deir Mar Juhanna. Rather, their experience of being baptized in the Jordan most likely takes place miles up-river at a place called Yardenit.

Yardenit has been a Christian holy site since ancient times. Owing to the fact that the Jordan is readily accessible there, Yardenit has long been the place where Christian pilgrims have come to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan. A nineteenth century painting depicted Christian pilgrims gathered at Yardenit to be immersed in the Jordan River. Since then, it has been a favorite spot for Christian baptismal services.

Today, Yardenit is maintained by a nearby Jewish agricultural commune known as a kibbutz. Kibbutz Kenneret has transformed Yardenit into a modern, well-maintained, if somewhat touristy, setting for Christian baptisms. Most any day one will see scores of Christians of all stripes from all around the world wading into the Jordan at Yardenit to be baptized, some for the first time, some to reaffirm their original baptism, some merely curious, some deeply moved. It is indeed a multicultural mosaic of Christian traditions. Yet, despite the diversity of languages, cultures, and liturgies, the baptisms witnessed at Yardenit have a curious familiarity about them irrespective of one’s particular tradition, the wet-haired converts seeming more like brothers and sisters than strangers.

People choose to be baptized in the Jordan for all sorts of reasons. But many will attest to their desire to be baptized in the place where Jesus was baptized.

Jesus, however, most certainly was not baptized at Yardenit, or nearby for that matter. Though we cannot say with certainty, Jesus, who was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan in identification with John’s prophetic movement, was probably baptized some fifty miles or so south of Yardenit near the mouth of the Dead Sea. It was there, rather than up in the Galilee, that John the Baptist practiced his ritual cleansing immersions, called mikva'ot, as preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God, which he believed to be imminent. According to the gospels, “the entire region of Judea and all the Jerusalemites” went out to the “wilderness” where John was baptizing in the Jordan River (cf. Mark 1:4ff.). The reference to the wilderness of Judea places the location of John’s activity, and therefore Jesus’ baptism, nearer to Jericho than Yardenit. If indeed the local population went out to the wilderness to be baptized by the prophet, one would presume that John would have situated his place of baptism near the point on the river where people most frequently crossed it. In Jesus’ day, the major path from Jerusalem to Jericho would have been through Wadi Qelt which terminated at the Jordan at the ford in the river known today as el-Hajlah. It was most likely here that John performed his mikva'ot. The area today is part of the “no man’s land” between Israel and Jordan and is, therefore, inaccessible to most tourists and pilgrims. And so, the Christian today really cannot be baptized where Jesus was baptized.

Moreover, contemporary Christian baptism not only happens at a place different from where Jesus was baptized, but also has a meaning profoundly different from his. The gospels interpret the significance of Jesus’ baptism as more coronation than conversion. The voice from heaven (Bath Qol in Hebrew) declared Jesus to be both Son and Servant of God (cf. Mark 1:9-11, par.), Son giving to Servant a sense of identity, and Servant giving to Son a sense of purpose.

For the Christian, however, baptism signifies a dying and rising with Jesus so as to embark on a whole new life and a whole new way of living in the world which the New Testament describes as the Kingdom of God. It is formation, not coronation, that the Christian’s baptism signifies. It signifies an orientation to life so radical, so counter cultural, so “against-the-grain,” that the New Testament can only describe it as “death to an old way of life, and birth to a new.” As Will Willimon (The Intrusive Word) put it: “Because the gospel is a way of thinking and being in the world that does not come naturally, we must be born again, and again.” So radical an event did baptism signify in the early church that the convert was stripped as naked as the day they were born, publicly immersed in the presence of the community of believers, and then, emerging from the “watery grave of baptism,” given a new robe as a sign of their new status as members of the community of the baptized, and a new name to signify that the old person had died in the waters of baptism, and that the person who thus emerged arose to live a whole new life.

*Portions of this blog were excerpted from chapter 7 of my book, Where Jesus Walked (Judson Press).

1 comment:

Janice Havens said...

I really hope they clean up such a sacred site soon. I know there's a lot of people out there who would want to get baptized there. For one, I would want my future kids to be christened there, if possible.

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