As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and [John the Baptist] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on [Jesus]. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)
The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6 on the Julian calendar) is the third most important day on the calendar behind Passover and Pentecost for the Eastern Orthodox churches, and it is little wonder why.
Also known as the Theophany – manifestation of the divine – the Feast of the Epiphany marks that moment in scripture that birthed Christian faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the promised Messiah. It is also the foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Just as Christian pilgrims have been doing for nearly two thousand years, the Feast of the Epiphany begins with a short journey from Jerusalem to the Jordan River. Even the route is identical, following the same natural pathway down through the mountains of Judah into the Judean wilderness and up to the banks of that sacred stream.
PIlgrims at the Epiphany ceremony at Qasr El Yahud, on the Jordan River
Today, we are able to make the journey in about half-an-hour aboard comfortable passenger buses to Qasr El Yahud, the site many believe to be the authentic site where John baptised Jesus. But for much of Christian history, the trip took a bit longer, and often required an overnight stop along the way, and so it would be negligent to fail to mention that most famous of way stations, the Inn of the Good Samaritan. Situated just off the road from Jerusalem to the Jordan, the Inn of the Good Samaritan served Christian pilgrims journeying to the place of Jesus’ baptism for centuries.
The inn has today been transformed into a fascinating museum featuring mosaic floors found among the ruins of ancient synagogues and churches from across Judea and Samaria, the areas most commonly known as the West Bank. In its current capacity, the Inn of the Good Samaritan is a powerful reminder of the religious history permeating the entire area.
Mosaic on display at the Museum of the Good Samaritan
And the Inn of the Good Samaritan is not the only such reminder. Israel Parks Authority guide,Yoav Hermoni, explained that the Judean wilderness is a localized desert, meaning it is very small and far more abundant in natural resources than larger, more desolate deserts. What that means is that the Judean wilderness is the perfect location for monasteries – both in a natural and religious sense – and there are indeed many of them dotting the landscape.
Upon arriving at Jordan, pilgrims must wait upon the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to start the event, but there is no lack of activity in the interim. The atmosphere is festive, to say the least, but also very solemn.
“I am very happy to be here,” said Masha, a pious young pilgrim from Moscow who was clearly overwhelmed by the gravity of the event. Stylianos from Thessalonika, Greece didn’t speak much English, but expressed a similar gratitude at being able to participate in ceremony.
Qasr al-Yahud, the Arabic name for the location, was identified nearly 1,700 years ago by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, as the place not only where Jesus was baptized, but also where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Hence the Arabic name, which means “the Jews’ cutting [of the river].”
Both the eastern and western sides of the river have seen development by Jordan and Israel, respectively, and today boast ample facilities for visiting pilgrims.
Following a lengthy, but much anticipated procession from the nearby Monastery of John the Baptist, the Greek patriarch pronounces a series of blessings at a small chapel near the river and then proceeds to the water line.
At the river, the patriarch conducted a short ritual that centered around the releasing of three doves signifying the revelation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
While the Jordan is very cold this time of year, that didn’t stop many pilgrims and priests from washing their feet, hands and heads in its holy waters following the ceremony.
Ultimately, the Feast of the Epiphany is a brief event, but also a very important one. Significant enough for 20,000 Christian pilgrims to make their way to the Jordan River, most of them arriving from abroad.
Lydia Weitzman, Foreign Press Adviser for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, said there has been a strong effort to return the focus on Israel and the surrounding areas to that of the Holy Land. She said that while Israel has the same great weather and beaches as Cyprus and other eastern Mediterranean destinations, it offers so much more.
That strategy appears to be paying off. This past year saw a significant rise in tourism to Israel, and 69 percent of all visitors were Christians, most of whom consider themselves pilgrims. Of all tourists, Catholics come in the most significant numbers, totaling 39% of all tourists to Israel. And visiting Qasr al-Yahud and the Inn of the Good Samaritan demonstrates that there is a real commitment to adequately accommodate those Christian pilgrims and ensure that their journey is a meaningful and spiritual one.
Ryan Jones writes for www.travelujah.com, the leading Christian social network focused on Holy land tours. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.