Today, we share Part Three of a personal story about seeking Jesus. We thank Sonja Harris, a professional photographer and our recent Holy Land pilgrim, for allowing us to share these words and images…
What a better way to Seek Jesus than to renew our Baptismal vows in the Holy Land? Everything I experienced was nothing what I expected. Before arriving to our destination at the Jordan River where Christ was baptized by John the Baptist, we were able to see along our route the security fence that divides Israel and Jordan: barbed wire fence, as far as the eye could see, leaving nothing to the imagination that these two countries are in serious conflict. I have never seen such a long security fence…
We arrived at the Baptismal location at the River Jordan and I was astounded first at the unusual vivid green color of the river, then at how narrow this section of the river was. It’s our understanding that Christ was actually baptized around the bend to the right, which is just downstream, but not accessible to our group that day because it is on the Jordanian side. At about 3am Texas time, Deacon Tom Fox sprinkled water from the Jordan on us as we renewed our baptismal vows as a group. Time is allotted to the different groups coming to be baptized, and some were in their white shirts actually getting into the river in an area marked by metal rails.
A Greek Orthodox Church across the river was having a baptismal ceremony for a baby, and the father waved at us while holding his child. Sitting behind the father on benches were two Jordanian soldiers who, I’m guessing, are guarding the river so no one swims across. There were no visible signs of weapons on the soldiers.
The ride from the Jordan River to the Dead Sea was not long. The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world at 1,412 feet below sea level. While it may not have been my favorite place because of the heat, it certainly was an eye opener to the mysteries God provides. The sea is extremely rich with salt and minerals, so much so that a person cannot sink under the water. The black mud taken from the sea when rubbed on our bodies, then rinsed off, leaves the skin very smooth to the touch.
Jericho dates back to 9000 years B.C., is mentioned both in the Old and New Testaments, and is the oldest city in the world. The walls have long ago crumbled down. In ancient times, Jericho was considered to be the strongest fortress, yet it was conquered by Joshua and the Israelites with God’s help (cf. Joshua 6:1-27). Reading the Bible has become so alive for me now, because I can picture the city and all the ruins.
Still inhabited after 11,000 years, it is very obvious that Jericho has suffered under Israeli occupation. The city has been under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority since 1994. The political issues are a bit complicated for someone not familiar with the politics of the region. Upon entering the city, there was a large sign stating that a project aiding Jericho was being gifted by the American people to the Palestinian people. It was good to see this sign, since the city is littered with trash, and poverty seems prevalent because of the occupation. Researching, I found the Palestine-Israel Journal, 2001, with information from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, that 64% of the population living in the Palestinian Territories live below the poverty line.
Before lunch, we stopped in front of the ancient Sycamore tree where Zacchaeus met Jesus. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealth man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. (Luke 19:1-10)
We ate our delicious Mediterranean meal at Mount of Temptation Restaurant, where we were showered with hospitality from the staff. I was able to photograph the city from the restaurant’s rooftop. The rooftop gave me an advantage of seeing Jericho at a great distance, and Mount Temptation, where Jesus was tempted by the devil. To actually see Mount Temptation and photograph it was incredible. Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” (Matthew 4:1-11)
Before arriving to our resting place at the hotel Notre Dame in Jerusalem, we stopped to see Ein Karem, the birthplace of St. John the Baptist. The church is a simple design that was built over the cave where St. John was born. From inside the church, you step down into the cave. Over the entrance is a large painting of St. John baptizing Jesus. Once inside the cave, the place of his birth is marked by a large marble star with the Jerusalem Cross in the center and the Latin inscription,“Hic Precursor Domini Natus Est,” translated, Here was Born the Precursor of the Lord. What an experience, visiting the birthplace of the man who waited to serve our Lord before He went into the world to fulfill Scripture! St. John was beheaded for speaking against immorality.
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:67-80)
This is a beautiful depiction of St. John the Baptist, who spent so many years in the desert. He must have been a rugged-looking man; at least that is how I picture him in my mind. The small plate beneath this painting has these words, ‘Saint John the Precursor in the Byzantine Iconography’.
It’s been two months since our trip to the Holy Land, and I am still processing the holy sites we visited. Looking back and writing about them helps with the enormous task of placing life in order: God, family, and country! Everything else is cotton candy or jalapeño juice…