Pilgrims seek site of Jesus’ baptism

For most Americans, Epiphany on Jan. 6 passes with little celebration.

Traditionally, the 12th day of Christmas is marked by Eastern Orthodox, Catholics and some mainline Protestants as the day the three kings visited the baby Jesus. For Eastern Rite Christians, Epiphany (also called Theophany) emphasizes the revelation of Jesus as the son of God through his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. Thousands of believers make pilgrimage on that day to the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus.

And that’s where the controversy begins.

While Israel has long claimed that Jesus was baptized on the Israeli side of the river, increasingly scholars say archaeological research shows the baptism site is in Jordan. When Pope Francis visited the Holy Land last spring, he made a point of holding Mass at the Jordanian baptism site, lending additional credibility to the claim.

The site is called “Bethany beyond the Jordan” in the Bible, and scholars point to textual and archaeological evidence that the site is on the east bank of the river. For many Christians, the baptism site is the third holiest site of Christianity, joining Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where he is believed to be buried.

The baptism site itself combines a carefully controlled archaeological dig surrounded by the construction of a dozen new churches and guesthouses. Cleared of mines after the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, the area is protected by the Jordanian government to preserve numerous archaeological treasures being unearthed daily.

One excavation revealed remnants of a third-century church with a cruciform baptismal structure where early pilgrims came to be baptized. Carved into the stone are thousands of small crosses, signs left by early Christians after being baptized. Another dig has unearthed what is believed to be the cave where John the Baptist lived.

The Roman Catholic Church is constructing a 32,000-square-foot church and center on the grounds to welcome tourists.

On the Jordanian bank, visitors have a clear view of pilgrims being baptized on the Israeli site, just a few yards across the muddy river. Israeli and Jordanian soldiers stand guard on either side, while tourists sing hymns and step into the river.

The main Jordanian baptism site is a few yards down the river, where it widens and there is better access for those who want to be immersed in the waters. An ancient baptismal font has been restored for those who prefer sprinkled or poured baptisms.