I wasn’t expecting a spiritual experience on this trip to Jordan. I was looking for Petra and Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea, then stumbled on Al-Maghtas. Well I didn’t recall the name, or the news stories and pictures of popes going to the Jordan side of the River Jordan to visit and pray. I didn’t know that the world’s major churches now agree that the spot where Jesus Christ was baptised by John the Baptist was on the Jordan side and not on the opposite bank which is in Israel and where thousands of pilgrims go every year. Unesco has supported the Jordanian claim, and the archaeological evidence is persuasive. This trip wasn’t meant to be a pilgrimage. I was speed-googling Jordan two weeks before we left Singapore because I knew too little about the country, when I stumbled on “Baptism Site”.
It was a Hey-What? moment and I called the travel agent arranging our itinerary and she was unimpressed because few people heading to Jordan look for this when there is so much more to see that’s bigger, grander, more spectacular. Her contact in Amman was equally unenthusiastic and said: “Oh well, we can fit that in if they really want, it’s near Aqaba and the Dead Sea.” Arafat the driver who took us there was least impressed of all, and told us many times: “Baptism Site, many mosquitoes! Many mosquitoes!”
The Baptism of Christ, by Guido Ren (left) and Bartoleme Esteban Murillo
But you know what. I know this story so well because it has washed over me all my life even when I wasn’t paying attention at Mass. This is one of the grand moments in the Jesus story, when he goes to be baptised by his cousin the wild guy who preaches repentance and crunches on locusts. And, as soon as John has baptised him, the heavens open up, a dove comes down, and a voice cries out: “This is my son, the beloved.” I paraphrase, but that fills me with awe every time. It’s also a significant point in the life of Jesus because he is now about 30 years old and this marks the start of his short public ministry and you know how that story went, and how remarkable that it still continues to this day. The baptism story inspired several artists and here’s a selection of how some of them imagined it to be. The art historian who directed me to these pictures informed me that unlike the artists, I actually got to see the river so I shouldn’t be surprised that the water isn’t pristine and blue.
The Baptism of Christ by, from left, Verrocchio, Piero Della Francesca and El Greco
Arafat was right about the mosquitoes, and you can’t get to the river except with a guide who escorts groups of visitors by bus to the site. I have to say that as we approached the Baptism Site I felt a growing excitement to be at this place. We could see new churches coming up because now this was regarded as holy ground.
When we got to the Baptism Site itself, it was somewhat underwhelming and there was no river, just a wet puddle among some old rocks and stony, muddy ground. The archaeological remains of five churches at and below it convinced everyone that this is the spot. The guide took everyone to see the orthodox church nearby but I just wanted to see the river, so I left the group and went ahead to find the River Jordan.
I found it, and it was like nothing in the art or my imagination. It’s just a small river, and so narrow you could wade across to Israel on the opposite side except for the no-go zone in the middle of the river and the Israeli soldier with a big gun.
All the action was happening on the Israeli side though, with large groups of pilgrims who sounded like they were from America, wearing white shifts, singing hymns and going into the water to be immersed fully. Watching them go under that latte-coloured water was, well, Yuck. But it was hard to not watch them, young, old, couples. Other tourists arrived and they looked like they were from somewhere else, speaking what sounded like Russian.
There was nobody on the Jordanian side when I got there, and soon our group of 20 arrived. So this is when I start to feel like, I have come to a really special place, and this feels good. I am a Catholic who resists pilgrim tours, my faith is simple and sometimes fraught, I hear the stories and one part of me says Yeah, Right and the rest of me says, Water into Wine? Bring it on! I get into trouble with priests, and I rate Sunday sermons cruelly.
But here I am at the River Jordan and, before I knew it, I was rolling up my bermudas, stepping onto the slimy, muddy riverbed, going in. The River Jordan was chilly and cold that day, and it felt good being in it. Only one other member of our group got into the water, but across on the Israeli side, pilgrims kept arriving by the busload, Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art were in the air, people kept wading into the water, immersing themselves, hugging, taking photos. No dove descended, no voice called out from the sky. But I became an accidental pilgrim that day, though I didn’t dunk.
I have to mention that the River Jordan is also part of the soundtrack of my life because if you say “River Jordan”, I start to sing “Michael Row The Boat Ashore”. But that’s a different story.