By SUSAN DENNIN
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan names St. John the Baptist as its patron saint – an interesting fact for a country that calls only about 6 percent of its population Christian. Yet, not so surprising once you begin to understand the biblical importance of this country that is about the size of Indiana. This beautiful place is centered in a part of the world that has historical and far-reaching theological significance.
I was fortunate to visit Jordan as part of a religious press tour, and was both fascinated and awed by the country, its history and its people. My fellow travelers were 26 American faith writers from various Christian denominations. Our pilgrimage included not only visits to Old and New Testament sites, but to churches and pontifical ministries throughout the country. Later in this series, I will discuss Jordan’s current role in the Middle East, the efforts to help refugees and how it tries to work toward coexistence among its peoples.
Touring this country impacted me profoundly. I hope to share with you my spiritual and emotional journey as I walked this holy ground along with the sacred history of its cultural highlights. My pilgrimage had me wearing the same dust on my feet that linked Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, the apostle Paul, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Perhaps my retelling will open your eyes to the wonders of the “eastern” Holy Land.
To begin, I must answer the question I was asked when I told people of my impending trip – yes, the country of Jordan is safe. Despite being surrounded by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine, a geographical and political hotbed, the country hasn’t had a single act of terrorism since 2005. Our group never once felt uncomfortable or singled out as a minority by virtue of being Christian. In fact, we found the people to be very welcoming and helpful.
We began our tour in Amman, the capital, situated in the northern part of the country, with a visit to the Jabbok River, a tributary of the River Jordan. This is the site where Jacob, our father in faith, wrestles all night with a mysterious “man” and finally ceases his battle by asking for a blessing. Genesis 32 tells us the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and … have overcome.” Jacob received this blessing and the name Israel, meaning “he who wrestles with God.” This site was spiritually moving for me. Jacob’s own fears and loneliness epitomize the challenges many of us face both in life and with our faith. Through his story, we can see our own struggles and only by ceasing our struggling can we be led by God on the path to conversion and redemption. This was the perfect place to begin the journey as it provided foreshadowing of future stories in the Old and New Testament. It is also provided a beautiful message in this Year of Mercy that although our lives are never easy, God is always there for us both during and after the struggle.
Our next stop was Umm Qais, a Greco-Roman ruin near the city of Gadara. Gadara, if you recall, is the place where Jesus cast out the demons dwelling within men by allowing the demons to infect the swine and then sending them to their death. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all share this story and it is one that tells of Jesus’ compassion for everyone, even the most troubled among us. It also reminds us of how the Gadarenes turned down Jesus’ mercy, angry at the impact from the loss of income-producing swine, sadly choosing one demon over another.
Umm Qais is located on the King’s Highway, a trade route stretching from Egypt through Jordan and ending at the Euphrates River. Today it is but a shadow of its former glory, but you can still see the remains of the amphitheaters and a temple, and imagine the grand pillars that marked the main “cardo” into the city. The view from the overlook is stunning: The Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights and Syria stretch out before you. While you stand on the precipice overlooking the horizon it is easy to imagine that this is the very same cliff that Jesus sent demon-infested swine crashing to their death.
Our journey then led us to Madaba, an historically Christian city. Here you will find the beautiful 6th-century Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, which houses the largest intact mosaic floor depicting the Middle East. This famous mosaic is remarkable in so many ways. Regarded as the most exact map of the Holy Land before modern cartography was developed, it was assembled from more than 1 million pieces of colored stone. It shows many of the sacred sites that now reside in Israel, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan. This was the perfect point to reflect on the early pilgrims and how they sought to strengthen their faith by visiting these important places. Knowing that I, too, was following in the footsteps of early Christians also assured me of the spiritual significance of this trip.
Continuing on the path of this visit of faith naturally brought us to Mount Nebo. Have you ever imagined the “land of milk and honey” promised by Moses to the Israelites? Our trip to Mount Nebo afforded us the same view Moses gazed upon as God showed him the Promised Land, a land he would never live to enter. We are told he was buried somewhere in the hills of Mount Nebo. Today, in this peaceful setting, the visitor is surrounded by the magnificent views of Bethlehem, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem to the southwest and the Jordan River, Jericho and Lake Tiberius to the northwest. Truly what a sight this must have been after 40 years of leading the children of Israel to their destiny. Our Catholic group was privileged to attend Mass at the charming Franciscan monastery on the opposite side of the acropolis from the newly restored Memorial to Moses that preserves a basilica built in the 6th century with intricately designed Byzantine mosaics.
Next, our journey followed that of ancient pilgrims who would travel from Mount Nebo to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the place where John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah to preach and baptize.
Susan Dennin is the communications director for the Diocese of Salt Lake City.