The Jordan River
The Jordan River does not just flow through the length of Palestine. It also flows through the length of the Christian Church. The Orthodox especially love the Jordan, since all our baptisms take place in it: when the priest prays for the water in which the candidate is to be baptized, he prays that God may “grant unto it the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan”. Thus wherever the church may be located in which Orthodox catechumens are baptized, the waters in which they are immersed are those of the Jordan River.
It is a great burden for any river to bear, and especially a river so confined as that of the Jordan. It was wider in former days, for the modern damming of the river near its source up north has restricted its flow somewhat. When one approaches the Jordan River today, it looks so small, so narrow. When I stood on its banks last year during my visit to the Holy Land, I guessed that a good throwing arm could easily cast a stone across it to the opposite bank. I had thought that a river so famous and so rich in Christian symbolism would be wider and more impressive.
That symbolism goes far back. The river formed one of the natural boundaries of the Holy Land, so much so that the tribes of Israel located east of it thought that their western brethren would inevitably conclude that the Trans-jordanian tribes were somehow less a part of Israel than those located to the west of it. (Read all about in Joshua 22.) The crossing of the Jordan in the days of Joshua’s conquest was like the crossing of the Rubicon: after that, there was no turning back, and God miraculously parted the waters of the river to allow Israel to pass through that boundary quickly and safely. That river-crossing became a symbol of the soul’s entry into the Promised Land of heaven and its eternal inheritance. The river marked not just the boundary of the Holy Land, but the boundary of earth, and crossing that boundary meant crossing from this life to the next, passing through the cold waters of death and entering into heaven. The old spiritual hymn says it well: “Michael row the boat ashore. River Jordan is chilly and cold; chills the body but not the soul.” The Michael rowing the boat is Michael the archangel, God’s protector for His people, and an image of our guardian angel, bringing us safely across the river to the other side. Death chills the body of the Christian, but not his soul.
Through the grace of Christ, we pass through the cold waters of death to emerge safely on the land promised to us on the other side.
For the Christian the Jordan River finds it greatest significance in the ministry of John and in the baptism of Christ. That is why most Christians prefer to visit that long river in its southern parts, in the ancient land of Judea rather than Galilee, for it was here, in Judea, that John the Forerunner baptized (Jn. 3:22-23). Even when one has already been baptized in churches elsewhere throughout the world, Christian devotion compels the pilgrim visiting the Holy Land to wade into the Jordan and to wash in the waters made sacred and memorable through the baptism of the Lord. When I was there I also waded into its stream, and poured its waters over my face. Drinking the water was not safe, nor was swimming the little way across the river to the other side. A sign warned that drinking the water was not healthy, because you might get sick. A quick look around at the armed Israeli soldier keeping guard warned that swimming to the other side was not healthy, because you might get shot. But there was no harm in washing in the water, and everyone visiting the site did so.
Why? What’s the point? One can talk about the washing as “spiritual baptism” (as contrasted with actual sacramental baptism), or use other explanations to justify the washing, but perhaps such artifices are not really required. “The heart has its reasons which reason itself knows nothing about”, as the saying by Paschal goes. The pilgrim visiting Palestine knows that the point of the trip is to make physical connection with the sacred sites, to see and touch the actual rock of Golgotha on which the Lord was crucified, to kneel in adoration and wonder in the place from which He rose from the dead. Sometimes the actual spot cannot be ascertained—on which actual square foot of earth, for example, did our Lord stand before He ascended into heaven? It cannot be the place shown to tourists in the chapel of the Ascension, because that chapel was built on the summit of the Mount of Olives, and the Gospel text says that Christ ascended from a place over the summit, towards the other side, closer to Bethany (Lk. 24:50). But even if the actual bit of ground sometimes cannot be discovered, the heart still longs to make whatever physical connections it can. And that connection is powerfully made at the banks of the Jordan. We cannot know exactly where Christ was baptized, but that does not matter. What matters is the Jordan itself, and the fact that its waters have continued to flow from the time of Christ. These waters once flowed over the body of Jesus.
Moreover, the Jordan continues to look more or less like it did in the time of Christ, and this also comforts the pilgrim heart. The long years of piety have adorned certain sites with Byzantine splendour, though some suggest that those sites have been not so much adorned as defaced by Byzantine splendour. Anyway, adorned or defaced, the sites now bear little resemblance to how they looked two millennia ago, in the time of Jesus. When we read the Gospel text, we imagine those sites as they were, not as they currently appear. Sometimes the difference between what we imagine they looked like in Bible times and what they look like now is jarring to our sensitivities. But the Jordan does not jar. It continues to look as it did in the time John the Forerunner, when the Lord waded into its stream and submitted to be baptized by His servant. John himself felt the incongruity of the holy being baptized by the sinner, and tried to protest, but the Lord would have none of it. John had to do it, “for thus it was fitting to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). That was how the Kingdom and the righteousness of God would come into the world—not by an overwhelming thunder of divine might, but by a quiet demonstration of divine humility. Christ’s Kingdom came because He was baptized among the sinners, and because He was crucified among the thieves. Christ’s steps downward into the Jordan were His first steps downward towards the Cross. When the pilgrim steps into that stream and washes in its waters, he connects with the entire ministry of Christ. The Jordan flows from the past, into the present, and onwards into the Kingdom. The pilgrim who pours its water over his face washes in eternity.