When Pope Francis visited Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan May 24 on his “pilgrimage of prayer” to the Holy Land, he was the latest pilgrim to follow the words of the Bible and the footsteps of early Christians to the wilderness on the eastern banks of the Jordan River that has been called the birthplace of Christianity.
“The place where we are meeting commemorates Jesus’ baptism,” the pope told an assembly at the Church of the Baptism of Jesus (of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem). “Coming here to the Jordan to be baptized by John, Jesus showed his humility and his participation in our human condition.”
With these words, Pope Francis became the most well-known modern pilgrim to a place that visitors of all faiths from around the world have been flocking to in increasing numbers, marking a return to the traditional pilgrimage map used by early Christian pilgrims from Europe. The Baptism Site Commission (BSC), a board of trustees charged with preserving and protecting the holy site while also making it accessible to pilgrims, estimates that more Americans visited the site in 2013 than any other nationality.
“We are very happy that the Pope chose to begin his first visit to the Holy Land in Jordan, where Christianity began after the baptism of Jesus,” said Malia Asfour, director of Jordan Tourism Board, North America (JTBNA). “His message for peace, harmony and integration is the essence of how Jordanians are and can easily be seen by traveling throughout the country and by meeting the people. It is my hope that more travelers take a journey to Jordan and follow in the footsteps of the Pope and the prophets before him.”
His Beatitude Patriarch Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, had welcomed the pope to the Latin Church at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan with these words: “Our Church, together with the Jordanian government, is pleased and proud to present to the world this holy place where the Baptism of Jesus Christ took place and where our Lord’s public life began. Following in your footsteps, we invite the Christian world to visit this site and learn more about our roots and our ecclesial life. For many, this river is a border. For the Latin Patriarchate, which includes Cyprus, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, it is more a bridge that unites, a call to communion and unity.”
Earlier, at the nearby archaeological remains of five churches built over time by early Christians to commemorate the very place where Jesus was baptized, the pope had paused in silent reflection. After, he made his way to another spot on the Jordan River where – as Pope Paul VI did before him, in 1964 – he spent a few moments alone in prayer and reflection. He then joined the waiting assembly outside of the Latin Church, which is still under construction. Before entering the church, the pope took several minutes to write a personal note that included these words: “Thank you for offering humanity this place of witness.”
The Christian Bible teaches that Jesus came to Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan (John 1:28) to be baptized by his cousin before beginning his public ministry. The Bible says that in this wilderness, Elijah had ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, and centuries later John came to preach and baptize in the spirit of Elijah. All four Gospel writers tell of the Spirit of God descending like a dove upon Jesus after his baptism, thus marking the proclamation of the one God and Holy Trinity that is central to Christian belief. In this sense, the baptism of Jesus marks not only the beginning of his public ministry, but also the beginning of Christianity.
In the past decade, western Christian theologians, pastors, scholars and journalists – from varied denominations – have examined and followed the progress of the excavations at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan. There is a growing consensus among these modern Christian leaders that accounts from early Christian pilgrims as far back as the fifth century were right – this is where Jesus was baptized.
In the year 2000, to commemorate the pilgrimage of Saint Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church designated five biblical locations in Jordan as Jubilee pilgrimage sites: Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan; Mount Nebo (where, according to the Christian Bible, Moses saw the land he would never enter and is buried nearby); Mukawir (the hilltop fortress where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded after Salome’s fateful dance); Anjara (Catholic tradition teaches that Jesus, his disciples and the Virgin Mary passed through here and rested in a cave during one of their journeys)and Umm Qais (traditional location of the miracle of the Gadarene Swine).
The large wilderness area known as Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan – associated with the biblical prophets Elijah and John the Baptist – is a national park of the kingdom of Jordan. The park was established to preserve the place as it was in the time of Jesus, and also to accommodate pilgrims from all over the world. Early Christians built churches here to commemorate the baptism of Jesus, and it is depicted on the famed Sixth Century Madaba Map, the oldest surviving mosaic map of the Holy Land. Church leaders, park trustees and tourism officials are working to facilitate and continue the tradition of pilgrimage here, while protecting the world heritage site from over-commercialization.
About ten years ago, authorities decided to offer plots of land in the park – outside of the protected wilderness area – free of charge to various Christian denominations, so that they could build new religious buildings (sanctuaries, monasteries and guest houses for pilgrims) to continue the pilgrimage tradition started by the early Christians. Varied denominations are building facilities at their own expense in the area set aside for pilgrims and visitors. When the projects are completed, about a dozen new places of worship should stand in the park.
Once completed, the Church of the Baptism of Jesus could become one of the most visited places in the Holy Land for Catholic pilgrims and the local faithful, according to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. The holy building will be able to hold about one-thousand worshippers, and the large square cloisters opposite it should hold at least two-thousand people. On both sides of the transept, two monasteries have been built, for two monastic communities – one male and one female – of the congregation of the Incarnate Word. Each of the monasteries can accommodate 30 pilgrims on retreats. The apse of the church is no more than thirty meters from the Jordan River. Behind the apse, in the open air, a large baptismal bath has been built, for community celebrations, connected to the river by a small channel. Near the church, a large welcome center for pilgrims has been planned, with a restaurant, theater, museum and souvenir shops.