February 13, 2008

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

We were scheduled to take a trip to see Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site where John the Baptist is alleged to have baptized Jesus. It was little more than a slot in my day’s schedule to me. I’m not a religious pilgrim, but this is a site of historical, cultural significance and it’s a place-to-see in Jordan. So I got on the bus and we headed for the site. It was a gray overcast day. The ground was still wet from earlier rains.

We left our hotel on the shore of the Dead Sea and headed up the highway through a brown, barren, rocky and mountainous landscape. A mile or so up the road we had to stop for about 10 camels and one man to cross the street. Someone found a puppy crossing the street and saved it, and then confusion broke out about what to do with him. No one was ready to try to get him on a plane.

We arrived at our destination in a few minutes. We met Ruston Mikhjan, a man who is an engineer at the site, one of the people who works on the archaeological excavation of what is believed to be the place referred to in the Bible as five Roman miles from the Dead Sea where John baptized Jesus. Those measurements are hard to make because the Dead Sea, which is really a salt lake, is shrinking. It is said to have once stretched from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee, but if it continues to shrink on its current trajectory without intervention, it will eventually shrink down to swamps of salt. The River Jordan has also gotten smaller and its path has changed over the centuries. But many believe that the site now called Bethany Beyond the Jordan was actually where John baptized Jesus. The Pope signed off on it and the king of Jordan has also put his weight behind the archaeological project.

The engineer explained many things, including the fact that before the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, the area was a military zone, in fact loaded with mines, so no archaeological work was possible. After the treaty, serious architectural work began and the ruins of an old church were discovered at what is believed to be the baptism site. Why would anyone build a church in the wilderness where there is no community to serve? the engineer asked us. Why indeed? Because it was the site of Jesus’ baptism, he said.

Not just an engineer and archaeologist, our guide was also a Jordanian Christian and quite excited about the discovery from a religious point of view as well as from a nationalistic one and a humanitarian one. He is proud as a Jordanian that his country is caring for the site, unveiling the mystery and preserving it for mankind. And he believes it is a place where all the Abrahamic religions can come together in understanding.

There was an uncanny silence in the area. The landscape under the overcast sky was gray brown, with dry brown brush all around us and lunar mountainous ridges on the horizon, It was a monochromatic composition in Andrew Wyeth tones and textures. Mikhjan rattled off Biblical and archaeological references, most of which went over my head. To me it was a story from a distant period in history that may or may not have taken place in that spot. It seemed from the data he recited and from the endorsements by popes and kings and organizations that it probably really is the site where the baptism took place, perhaps the first baptism, in a sense, an event of great significance for Christians. It is not that moving for me, but it has some historical significance. I am mildly interested in seeing for myself something that has generated so much interest over the centuries.

We walked along a walkway cordoned off by a railing constructed of gnarled branches. In patches along the walkway amid the nearly totally gray landscape were small patches of grassy, blossoming weeds so bright green they almost glow. They created a strange contrast against the stark background. When we reached the legendary River Jordan and got our first look at it, I couldn’t believe it. The river that is the subject of so many spiritual songs, the chilly and cold River Jordan looked like little more than a creek. Where we were standing it was as narrow as 12 feet or so wide. In some places it widened to about 20 feet. The water was moving very slowly, a milky brown color.

If the legendary Dead Sea is really a lake and the River Jordan is really a creek I began to wonder as I walked if Jesus was really only about a foot tall. It seemed like a big joke. Then we walked a little farther to the place where the diggers are now in the process of uncovering the church believed to have been built on the baptism site. Again, uncanny silence. Gray, dry brush in all directions eight feet high or so. The river has dried up there, just a little pool of water near the excavation.

And I’m looking at all this, feeling the ponderous silence of the environment behind the droning chatter of the voices of our little group, a mere speck of humanity on this vast landscape, and something is stimulating my senses in a strange, inexplicable way. I am still detached, the story is just a flat narrative from a book. I’m not particularly moved by its religious or archaeological aspects, but still pondering: Is this really the place where that event took place, that moment of great historical significance in the life of one of the most influential human beings ever to walk the earth, and in the life of one of the world’s great religions? Behind the voice of the engineer was a heavy, almost palpable silence. There was something very odd about the place that I couldn’t put my finger on, a strange ambience. The dry branches stood out so vividly from their backgrounds. They seemed to reach forth, to beckon. They seemed unusually animated, shimmering, humming on some fine, inaudible frequency.

I remembered the part of Stanley Kubrick’s film of Stephen King’s “The Shining” where the old cook Halloran is explaining something to Danny, the little boy who has great psychic receptivity (a quality Halloran calls “the shining”), “Sometimes something happens that is so powerful that it leaves traces of itself, not traces that everyone can see, but traces that people who shine can see.” Two thousand years is an age in human chronology, after all, but not much in the lifespan of the earth. An old rhyme emerges from a deeply embedded memory. “A thousand ages in thy sight. are like an evening gone;. short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.” What is behind the very strange ambience of this spot in the wilderness? Is there something here that someone who had the required sensitivity could pick up?

If we subscribe to Western scientific rationalism, we must accommodate Einstein’s relativity, and therefore we know time is not really a linear phenomenon. Western man imposes a linear grid upon the experience of time to synchronize people and events and make society function like a clock. But time has other dimensions. In the Einsteinian terms of a four-dimensional timespace continuum, every moment lasts forever, somewhere. There we stood at the physical space on earth alleged to be the spot where a monumental event took place. The same place, but a different time, a time removed by about two millennia. Still, besides the archaeological discoveries, might there be some other trace left by that event, some resonance that might be discovered or detected if we had the right instruments, or apprehended by someone with a certain kind of receptivity?

Who knows? I am pondering these things as I walk on with my group, a diverse collection of Christians, Jews and “Moslems” as they say in Jordan (not “Muslims” as we say in The States). We were Americans, Canadians, Brazilians, Mexicans chattering, shuffling along this dirt walkway with the gnarled branch railings. To the west of us, on the horizon over the West Bank, in the sky over Jerusalem and Jericho, there was a break in the clouds, and rays from the sun shone down in solid beams through spaces in the clouds. It was grippingly spectacular. It looked like one of those painting depicting a divine revelation, God speaking from the sky. It was one of those glorious skyscapes one is occasionally privileged to witness. Just odd to be happening right there and then.

The cloud cover continued to shift and let more sun through until it shined warmly on us and then it began to rain lightly. There we were, finally seeing the sun for the first time all day, and at the same moment it started to rain. “It” decided to rain on us at that moment, as we say, whatever it is. I chuckled to myself as I remembered some old folklore about how when it rains while the sun shines it means the devil is beating his wife. It was a rather ironic statement for “it” to be making, if one could think of it as a statement at all. But we humans are always looking for significance. I chuckled to myself at the thought of the devil beating his wife as we observed this religious site and I was reassured by the thought that God has a sense of humor. God, or the gods or spirits of that place, or maybe the devil himself.

As we approached the new church that is being built near the site, the sun brilliantly illuminated its sand colored walls and gold dome so that it made beautiful photographic material. On one side you could photograph it in silhouette against a backdrop of the blazing sun breaking through the clouds. From the other side, the church gleamed in the sun against a dark blue-gray cloud cover. And then someone behind us pointed up and said, “Look, a rainbow!” Against the dark blue, menacing-looking clouds, a huge rainbow had formed in a vast arch across the sky. Both ends had formed brightly, with a faded arch in the middle, and it made an echo of itself, a fainter rainbow just to the side of the main one. The rainbow became more pronounced, the colors darkened and someone said, “Look, the purple!” And I saw that on the far right side of the strip of colors was a purple band. It was the first time I recalled ever seeing a rainbow so bright that the ultraviolet band stood out brightly.

Some one said, “It’s a sign!” and others snickered a little, but there was an uneasy edge to the snickers, not entirely sure in their skepticism. Someone said to me in confidential tones, “I wish we wouldn’t be seeing so many… sort of revelations -- it’s disturbing to my agnosticism.”

It was unnerving, indeed, to those of us Westerners secure in our images of ourselves as confirmed scientific rationalists to be treated to such a spectacle of natural phenomena as we were observing a place alleged to have been the site of a miraculous transformation. Science is our religion in the modern world, after all. But to those of us of the scientific persuasion, it certainly was what we like to call a strange series of coincidences. We were, in fact, only a few miles from the Kumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. It’s all very intense around here, and I’ve only begun to look at the antiquities I’ll be seeing in this region known as The Holy Land. It’s hard to remain one’s stance of being totally impervious to the spiritual aspect of things.

-- David Cogswell

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