26 December 2003
Two hours by shiny turboprop west of crumbling Baghdad, across a desert
nightmarishly vast and empty, is the clean, modernized, Muslim Arab city of
Thirty minutes by hired car from Ammanís white buildings, at a slight, non-descript bend in the Jordan River, is the spot where Jesus Christ was baptized by his cousin John.
While most of this stretch of the Jordan Valley looks as barren as the moon, this particular spot in Bethany is beset 50 meters inland from each bank by tall reeds and short green trees. The river is only about 15 feet wide at this point. The water, a murky greenish-brown, flows on past this place for a few miles down into the fantastically strange Dead Sea, a body of water so salty that one can actually sit up in it because of the extremely high buoyancy.
It was easy for me to imagine what this spot on the river looked like on the day Jesus made his visit. Thatís because it hadnít been cluttered with kitsch or marred by monuments. Only a little chapel stood nearby. The nearest improved road was half a kilometer away.
The modest tourist information center was considerably farther beyond that, around a bend and out of sight. Aside from the Israeli flag flying on the bluff opposite me and the Jordanian standard 30 feet behind me, there was really nothing to tell a sudden amnesiac what year it was at all. The absence of humankindís handiwork made this, the site of one of humanityís greatest events, seem at once new and eternal.
This spot on the Jordan is where so much began. The ancient cathedrals of Canterbury and Notre Dame owe their raison díetre to this spot, a spot that, ironically, seemed so fresh and clean and alive when compared with those somber edifices of carved stone. It was almost as if their places on the timeline had been flipped.
Perhaps it is because those structures represent a passing style in human aesthetics that makes them seem dated and emotionally distant for the modern pilgrim.
This narrow spot on the Jordan, with its moving water, gentle breezes, swaying reeds, and rustling leaves was a much more vibrant, much more moving, and, considering the location, a much more literal connection with the living Christ.
Between the day Jesus came to this spot and my arrival, the world had witnessed so many religious crusades and inquisitions and civil wars.
Countless missionaries carried on animal, sailing ship, and airplane have spread the Word to people tucked away into every remote jungle and valley on the planet. Millions of textbooks in university libraries and thousands of paintings hanging on museum walls came about because of what began here at this gentle bend in the Jordan.
Solitary midnight deliberations and Sunday wooden pew prayers that have occupied so many millions of minds for generations could be traced back to this small place where the water cools and the wind soothes and where the sun shines down on green trees and on silent rocks that look exactly the same as they did some 720,000 days before.
That day, no dove descended from heaven and landed on my shoulder to mark this special life event. No sweet chariot swung low to carry me home. I did take a few photos and removed a small river rock that I put, still wet, into my pocket.
As it was early in the morning, I was the only one there. Out of courtesy, my Muslim guide was waiting over a knoll and out of sight. I marveled at how Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all came together at this one humble spot. The ideological conflicts of our time all met quietly and peaceably here.
It is at a place like this that I wish I could sit forever and savor every profound or ironic thought that occurs to me. Alas, while the tedious and routine stretches of life can seem insufferably interminable, there is never enough time for the truly magical moments, such as the one I enjoyed that day on the banks of the Jordan River.