Orthodox faithful mark Epiphany at Jordan River
January 19, 2007
PATRIARCH: Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, attends a ritual baptism ceremony in the Jordan River near the West Bank city of Jericho January 18.
JERICHO, West Bank -- Thousands of Orthodox Christians made a festive pilgrimage Thursday to the Jordan River site where Jesus is believed to have been baptized.
Some brave souls clambered over a security fence keeping them back from the final few, very steep, meters (yards) leading down the river a few kilometers (miles) east of the town of Jericho.
But sections of the fence were eventually breached by the press of hundreds more in their enthusiasm to reach the slow-moving muddy waters.
They came from across the Orthodox world, including Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, and as far away as Georgia, as well as from Israel and the Palestinian territories, but most were Russian.
Dozens of people modestly hid behind sheets held up for them, or wrapped themselves in towels to change into thin cotton tunics as they prepared to reenact their own baptisms.
The event marked the Feast of the Epiphany, when Jesus began his public ministry by receiving baptism from John the Baptist.
Western Christians celebrate Epiphany January 6, 12 days after Christmas. The Orthodox, who continue to use the old Julian calendar, mark the date January 18.
The celebrations, in a carnival-like atmosphere under a warm sun, began at the fifth-century monastery of St. John the Baptist on a hill overlooking the river in what is normally a closed Israeli military zone.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, was received there by hundreds of the faithful, clerics, and a marching band complete with bagpipes.
As he stepped from his car, he was greeted by another cleric holding a white dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, which was released into the air.
After prayers at the monastery, the dignitaries and pilgrims processed down a winding desert road between minefields to a pavilion just above the riverbank for more prayers.
The patriarch then blessed the waters of the river itself.
That was the signal for hundreds of people who had been waiting behind police barricades to press toward the river, its steep banks lined with scrubby trees and rushes.
Israeli soldiers and police did their best to control the crowds, but were overwhelmed. Across the narrow river on the Jordanian side a number of soldiers came down to the water to watch.
The mood was one of joy.
Theona Kakidze had traveled from Tblisi, Georgia, with her priest and a group of about 25 pilgrims.
"It is very beautiful," she said. "I can't explain what I am feeling now."
But down by the river, words were unnecessary.
A Russian and his son, who appeared to be about 10, entered the river together. The man embraced the boy and they both disappeared under the water before surfacing and repeating the ritual twice more.
This commemorated the Orthodox baptismal rite of immersion in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Less brave pilgrims went down on to the trampled reeds to dip plastic bottles into the river and then pour water over themselves, blessing themselves as they did so.
Two generous young men dipped large tin cans into the water using improvised "fishing poles" and filled the bottles of others.
Next to them were two Israeli civil defense workers armed with coils of yellow rope in case anyone needed rescuing.
One woman, clad from head to toe in black, seemed unable to get out of the river. After several unsuccessful attempts with the rope, two strong young men grabbed her hands and dragged her unceremoniously from the water.
Elsewhere, people guarded shopping trolleys full of bottles that they had filled with water to take home to Russia.
On the dais, after the final prayers had been chanted, people scrambled to dip their bottles into the water of a large copper baptismal font the patriarch had blessed.
One Greek nun, unable to make her way up, handed her bottle to a man above her and he dipped it into the font, bringing up not more than a few teaspoonfuls.
She took the bottle back with a word of thanks in Greek, and they began to chat.
Then, in a moment iconic of the divisions that plague humanity and Christianity, she asked him: "Are you Orthodox or [Roman] Catholic?"
The man replied that he was Anglican. She began to berate him, saying "This is only for the Orthodox ... the Catholics have nothing to do with the Orthodox."
But an elderly woman standing next to her, with wispy white hair and kindly eyes, smiled with gratitude when the man, his hand still wet from the font, offered it to her and she pressed it against her face.
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