This year, 2023, the festivity of the Baptism of the Lord, celebrated on Sunday 8 January, was particularly joyous and with a large participation: very many pilgrims came to the west bank of the River Jordan, near the site known as “Qasr al-Yahud”, the place where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptized, a day of grace on which God himself with his voice and which the descent of the Holy Spirit shows that the Lord is his favorite Son.
The feast-day started in the early morning in the Franciscan convent of the Good Shepherd of Jericho, where the local civic and religious authorities – including the governor of the city and Sheikh Har, imam of the mosque of Jericho – welcomed the Custos of the Holy Land, fr. Francesco Patton, the Custodial Vicar fr. Ibrahim Faltas and the Bursar of the Custody, fr. Tony Choucry. Also present at the greetings were the Consul-General of Italy, Giuseppe Fedele, the Consul General of Belgium, Wilfried Pfeffer and the Deputy Consul Generals of Spain and France, respectively Paloma Serra and Quentin Lopinot. Colonel Giuliano Polito, Commander of the Italian Training Mission of the Carabinieri, in service in Jericho, also wanted to pay tribute to the Custos with a representation of carabinieri.
The parish priest fr. Mario Maria Hadchiti, as the host, warmly greeted the large representation and read the passage from the Gospel which describes the baptism of Jesus and recalling how necessary peaceful coexistence is in this territory, where the Christians are a clear minority. The Custos fr. Patton insisted on the importance of the Franciscan presence in Jericho, especially through the Terra Sancta School: “We are pleased with the educational work that we can do here through the Terra Sancta School,” said the Custos, “Because school is the most important social establishment to guarantee and defend education for the young generations and represents our present and they are our future to build up together a path of peace.”
The friars in the entourage then went in a procession to the banks of the River Jordan for the celebration of the Holy Mass in the shrine dedicated to the baptism of Jesus; fr. Salem Younis, in charge of the site, where it has been possible to celebrate once again for only two years, was waiting for them. This is because the part of the territory on which the shrine and the church dedicated to St John the Baptist stand had been declared off limits for more than half a century due to the mines planted in the ground after the outbreak of the war between Israel and Jordan. It was not until March 2018 that the Halo Trust started work on demining this area, which became fully accessible once again in October 2020: this was an important event for the Franciscan Custody, whose presence here had been attested since the middle of the 17th century.
In his homily, the Custos of the Holy Land invited the faithful to reread their own baptism in the light of the baptism of Jesus: “How is the justice of God fulfilled in us and for us through our baptism?” The justice of God is implemented for us in our baptism precisely because with our baptism we are reached by the mercy and the forgiveness that God gives us through his Son Jesus and through the gift of his Spirit. But we too, like the Baptist and like Jesus, become active collaborators of the salvation that God gives, by learning how to want what God wants from us with all our strength.”
In the word of fr. Patton, this also echoes the invitation to read the voice of God in an intimate and personal way, because what God said of Jesus (“You are my son, loved one: I have placed my satisfaction in you”), in other words, could sound like this: “You are my son, I love you in a personal way, I am pleased to have given you life and that your life has a meaning, all the good I am capable of accompanies you and will accompany you for all your lifetime.”
The pilgrimage then continued to the Greek Orthodox monastery of the Quarantine near Jericho, which has been recognized for centuries as the mountain where Jesus underwent the temptations. The synoptic Gospels place a particular moment in the life of Jesus at Jebel (Mount) Qarantal (“forty,” indicating the number of days that Jesus spent in the desert) when, immediately after his Baptism, he withdrew for forty days and forty nights to fast in the desert. The reading of the passage from the Gospel which recalls this episode (Matthew 4, 1-11) brought the day of prayer to an end, in front of the ancient monastery, abandoned for a long time but rebuilt in the 19th century by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.