I wouldn’t dip a finger in the River Jordan

Tradition versus modernity. Health versus religious ritual. The dichotomy between these topics was again raised this week after Princess Charlotte’s christening. Traditionally the holy water that is poured into the ornate silver gilt lily font to anoint royal foreheads comes from the River Jordan. Even though Jordanian spokesmen assure everyone that the holy water is safe and hygienic, little would induce me to put a finger in it. The quality of the water has improved in recent years but it still contains sewage, agricultural and fish farming runoff and pesticides.

Perhaps, though, faith is stronger than my “germ-free” scientific beliefs. Each year around 300,000 pilgrims visit Yasr al-Yahud on the Palestinian side of the river, and about 100,000 at BethanyBeyond-the-Jordan and there have been no reports of illness. Even after the feast of the Epiphany each January, when huge crowds submerge themselves in the holy waters, there have been no reports of post-visit health troubles. When I last stood on the edge of this murky stream of water at Yasr al-Yahud, near Jericho, I saw hundreds of the faithful in billowing white robes dunk themselves in the waters, re-enacting the baptism of Jesus in the muddy river. Others just filled up bottles with water. I even saw some drink it. Others took their precious relic home to enjoy later or just keep as a holy souvenir. Many bottles will await future christenings.

Of course, when John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the river it was a fastflowing, fresh water source. Today, as most of it is diverted to agriculture and other purposes by Jordan and Israel, the water in the Jordan moves sluggishly to the Dead Sea. Polluted though the water is, there is no danger that the pilgrims from Greece, Russia, Cyprus and Romania who plunge into the river will drown. The reduced water level allows anyone to casually wade across from the opposite bank, which is part of the state of Jordan. When the next royal christening takes place, the water quality will have improved. By chance, Princess Charlotte’s ritual with the Jordan water took place just a week after EcoPeace (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East) released a master plan, funded by the European Union, to revive the quality of the river’s water. Plans include modern sewage treatment systems on the Jordanian side and improved agricultural methods on the Palestinian side. EcoPeace also hopes to persuade the Israel Water Authority to literally turn on the taps, that is, increase the volume of water from the Sea of Galilee.

Gideon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace, a lawyer by profession, who has the reputation of being a local environmental hero, is already showing his skill by working across borders with Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists. As well as the revival plan for the river, the royal christening also coincided with the announcement that Unesco has designated one of the two rival baptism sites on the Jordan as a World Heritage Site. It is Al Maghtas in Jordan – known also as Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan – which hosts around 100,000 visitors a year.

Pope Francis, during his 2014 visit to the Middle East, much to the delight of the Jordanians, said prayers at the baptism site. He was the third pope to have made a pilgrimage there. St John Paul II visited in March 2000, followed by Benedict XVI in May 2009. Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan also had a boost in 2010 when Rupert Murdoch and his then wife, Wendi, had their two daughters christened there. Tony Blair was a godfather, as was Hugh Jackman, and Nicole Kidman was a godmother. Following tradition all the guests wore white, but there were no reports of them entering the river.

So, which is the correct location where John the Baptist baptised Jesus? One could fill books with arguments in favour of both places. But it must be remembered that descriptions of places in the New Testament are sparse. One of the reasons for this is because 40 to 70 years elapsed after Jesus’s death before any of his followers put pen to papyrus.

But does it really matter which is the correct site? In the Holy Land every year there are already two Christmases and two Easters. Orthodox and Catholic Christmas and Easter are celebrated on different dates, sometimes weeks apart. Surely what matters is not so much the precise spot of the baptism, but rather the whole ritual. In Antiquities XVIII, Josephus describes John’s baptism practices. First, people gathered to listen to his preaching, after which he asked them to lead righteous lives, both towards each other and towards God. This was followed by the “cleansing of souls and the purging of sins” – and finally the immersion in water.

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