BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN, Jordan (OSV News) -- The officially recognized site of Jesus' baptism drew thousands of Catholics and others nationwide to the east bank of the Jordan River Jan. 13 for a special Mass as COVID-19 restrictions dropped.
Families, youth, dignitaries, nuns and priests joined the pilgrims' throng gathered first at the lush, reed-filled banks of the river as bagpipe music welcomed the faithful. Several priests filled jugs with purified water from the river to be used for the Mass at the adjacent Catholic Church of the Baptism of Christ.
"Although the church is big, the space inside has apparently become small," Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, tenderly told the overflowing crowd as he presided over the Mass in the cavernous church.
Archbishop Pizzaballa emphasized in his homily the importance of Bethany Beyond the Jordan, recorded in the New Testament as not only the place of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, but for the act that heralded the start of Jesus' public ministry.
Although without sin, Jesus stood in line with sinners waiting to be baptized by John, "publicly entering the world in the opposite way than expected," Archbishop Pizzaballa explained. "Jesus goes where people are in their situations, their problems, their difficulties. Jesus enters there and starts his ministry there." This, he said, revealed Jesus' overwhelming, abundant love for humanity.
But that was not all. "We also have a wonderful manifestation of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit," said Archbishop Pizzaballa, underscoring the appearance of the Trinity during Jesus' baptism.
It's important to humble ourselves and give our consent to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, Archbishop Pizzaballa urged. "Life in the spirit means love, patience, forgiveness, and respect. If you are not able to forgive, everything is broken. The Spirit unites, the flesh divides."
In fact, the baptism site itself is a place of reconciliation.
More than 25 years ago, following Jordan's peace treaty with Israel, excavations began on the east bank of the Jordan River and uncovered the baptism site. In 2030, Christians will celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' baptism, and to prepare for that celebration, a big investment in the area is underway.
In December, Jordan unveiled an ambitious $300 million, six-phase project aimed to attract 1 million visitors annually to the baptism site by developing a biblical tourism village in the adjacent area. Housing and other services would enable Christian pilgrims and visitors to spend more quality time at the baptism site, "to learn, appreciate and renew their journey of faith and spirituality."
The biblical tourism village project is in line with Jordan's efforts to boost its religious tourism sector. Other biblical sites include Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land; the world's oldest mosaic map depicting Jerusalem at its center; and Elijah's Hill, also at Bethany Beyond the Jordan.
This year's pilgrimage to the baptism site was the first after the coronavirus pandemic. Archbishop Pizzaballa took a sprig of olive branches. Dipping them in water from the Jordan River, he went throughout the congregation sprinkling the holy water on the faithful in a renewal of baptismal promises.
Father Rifat Bader, director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Jordan, stressed the importance of this year's pilgrimage.
"It comes two months after Jordan's official announcement to develop lands adjacent to the site" to accommodate pilgrims for longer stays in the area, Father Bader told OSV News. Funds are needed for this project as well as for the completion of the church.
St. John Paul II visited the place 23 years ago and Pope Benedict XVI also visited this UNESCO World Heritage Site, located some 30 miles west of the capital, Amman, in May 2009. He, along with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, laid the foundation stone of the Catholic Church of the Baptism of Christ. Five years later, Pope Francis visited the site and the church during the early stages of its construction and prayed there, also meeting Iraqi and Syrian refugees hosted by Jordan.
"The altar from the late Pope Benedict's visit to Jordan was used in Friday's Mass in remembrance of him," Father Bader said of the pope emeritus' death Dec. 31.
"We preserve the site as the way John and Jesus saw it," Rustom Mkhjian, the director general of the Baptism Site Commission, told OSV News. It's "a World Heritage Site that belongs to mankind. We, Jordanians, are the custodians."
The baptism site is full of the ruins of ancient Roman and Byzantine churches and chapels, a monastery, hermit caves and baptism pools, destroyed by earthquakes and the river's flooding. Mkhjian said five sources prove the site's authenticity "where Jesus was baptized and Christianity started: the Bible, the nearby priceless mosaic map of the Holy Land, pilgrims’ testimonies and archaeological discoveries, and letters of authentication sent by heads of churches affirming that this is one of the three holiest sites for Christians on earth."
Jordan wants the baptism site to be accessible, Mkhjian emphasized. "Everyone on earth deserves to visit the site and walk on the trails of John and Jesus."
"We would love for everyone around the world to join us in this special place of prayer," Jordanian banker Basel Ishtara told OSV News.
"The significance of this place is that salvation is for all people," Archbishop Pizzaballa said.