Day 5: The Dead Sea, the River Jordan and Jericho
Return to Day 1 click here; Day 6 click here
The day began with Mass in the Parish Church of Beit Jala in Bethlehem. Pilgrims arrived to the peal of bells in the Church Tower (video click here: Bethlehem Bells) and the Church quickly filled with local parishioners and pilgrims from other countries – Ivory Coast and Spain. Nine priests, including Fr Mervyn and Fr Patrick, concelebrated the Mass, with the local Parish Priest as the Chief Celebrant. Although the Mass was in Arabic, each pilgrim group was welcomed in its native language. Mass was accompanied by beautiful singing and the sung Kyrie reminded the congregation that we were members of a Global Church which originated from the birth of Jesus in this small middle-eastern town of Bethlehem.
After Mass, the priests greeted parishioners and the pilgrims as they left (photogrpah right) and all gathered to drink coffee in the courtyard. Afterwards, the pilgrims drove by coach to the Dead Sea, following the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho, which Fr Mervyn reminded us, was the route followed by the traveller in Luke’s Gospel who was set upon by robbers. A priest and a Levite, seeing his plight, passed by on the other side but a Samaritan, generally despised by Jews, came to his rescue. So it was an outsider who was the traveller’s neighbour, who did God’s will – a timely reminder, as pilgrims passed the likely location of the inn in the story, that goodness and responding to God’s will is not limited to ‘chosen people’.
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, 430m below sea level, and pilgrims arrived in intense heat of over 40 Centigrade. Most chose to experience the buoyancy of floating in the warm brine and some chose to cover themselves in the mud, rich in minerals, as is the tradition at the Dead Sea (see photograph below).
After a welcome lunch overlooking the sea, pilgrims drove to Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in excavations covering the period 1949-1956. Astonishingly, all the books of the Old Testament, apart from the Book of Esther, were found there, dating back to the first century AD, providing incontrovertible evidence of the authenticity of the scriptures; the texts closely resembled those dating from the 10th Century which had been the earliest previously known.
Pilgrims then travelled to the River Jordan and to the site of the baptism of our Lord by john the Baptist. Standing beside the river, the group read the Mark’s account of the baptism and then renewed their own baptismal vows on the banks of the Jordan. One-by-one, the pilgrims then stood by the bank and blessed themselves with water from the river. One member of the group decided to join some pilgrims from other groups by full immersion and gently rolled from the wooden platform into the flowing water.
The group then moved on to Jericho, thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited City in the world, and visited the site of the temptation of Jesus on the mount (photograph left). Fr Mervyn, newly attired in purple shirt, led the group in a reflection on the story in Matthew’s Gospel, reminding pilgrims to be strong, as Jesus was, in resisting the temptations of life.
Finally, the pilgrims visited the site which by tradition is thought to be the place where Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus (photograph right). It was Jesus who stopped to speak to Zacchaeus, a sinner and, as a tax collector, an outsider, and announced that he would be staying at his house that night. It was yet another example of Jesus greeting an outsider and forgiving him.
From Jericho, the group drove to their new hotel, the base for the next three days, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.