In Ben Gurion Airport our group met the tour guide who held a touching sign reading, “City of St. Peter”. When we were all gathered together, she greeted us with amiable words, some of which surprised and puzzled me:
“A miracle will definitely happen to each one of you in this Land—after all, you have stepped foot upon the extraordinary, Holy Land. Believe me—I have lead tour groups here for five years now. You only have to be able to see these miracles.
That this trip would not be commonplace is something that I already felt in St. Petersburg. All my business connected with our departure worked out in the best way possible, without any participation from me, and I thought sadly that probably I have already used up all my miracles and I don’t have anymore to look forward to.
But the miracles were only just beginning!
The main event, the reason we came to the Holy Land precisely on these days, was the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. However, our guide, Presbytera Maria, the wife of the archpriest at the Greek church of St. Nicholas, disappointed us when she said that for several years in a row now the Israeli military has not allowed pilgrims to come to the historical site of the Baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ, and we needed to pray fervently so that permission would finally be granted.
On the morning of January 18, when we boarded the bus, it was still unclear whether they would take us to the very place where St. John the Baptist baptized the Lord and not to some other spot on the River Jordan. Presbytera Maria again called upon all to pray, and in an everyday tone of voice added that today after the Great Blessing of the Waters we will see how the Jordan turns back. Apparently this was an ordinary manifestation for her. But not for me. This information made me rise from my seat and cry, “What do you mean by ‘turn back’? Does the Jordan really start flowing in the opposite direction?”
But Presbytera simply waved her hand. “Yes, you’ll see it for yourself soon!”
I fell silent and dropped back into my seat in confusion. But this did not mean that I had yet been successful in dealing with the churning flow of thoughts in my head. “What does this mean, ‘The Jordan was turned back’? How are we supposed to understand this? Do they really mean it literally? And why haven’t I heard about this before?” The words of Psalm 113, The sea saw and fled: Jordan was turned back (Ps. 113:3) that are sung on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord was something that I had always considered allegorical. The Jordan flows into the Dead Sea. The Jordan is an image of human mortality, and the Dead Sea is an image of hell. Out of all the rivers in the world, Christ had the Sacrament of Baptism take place in the Jordan, as if freeing our human race from its flow into death. This interpretation by St. John Chrysostom of the words of the Psalm was a real discovery for me when I heard them once. But that the water in the Jordan would actually start flowing backwards! And although the brain refuses to accept this extraordinary event, something within me was already living and trembling in expectation of this miracle.
Under my clothes and over my swimsuit, at Presbytera Maria’s advice I had put on while still in the hotel a white gown I bought the day before for five dollars in an Arab shop near the Lord’s Sepulcher. Along the road to the Jordan our bus stopped at the last shop where those who had not done so earlier could still purchase white gowns for a reasonable price. After all the fuss of shopping we walked upwards along a road and stopped near some sort of wall. I happened to be standing near the tour guide at the very moment when she announced that we were now near the first tomb of Lazarus the Four-days-dead. After eight days of our trip I still could not get used to the continually lightening-fast transformation from the ordinary to the great in this amazing Holy Land!
Finally, with all the anxiousness over the unknown behind us, we were now standing near the historical site of the Baptism of Christ, by the walls of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist! A brief wait for the arrival of Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem, and the Cross procession solemnly moved to the accompaniment of the kettle-drum and horns toward the Jordan, where the rite of the Great Blessing of the Waters began.
During the services, a white dove landed decorously on the Patriarch’s staff. At the end of the service he flew up, turning two circles over our heads, and then returned again to his place. The Israeli military guarding the entrance to the Jordan, automatic rifles on the ready, allowed the priests to approach the water and then closed ranks in front of the pilgrims. I was seized with anxiety: now how will I see the most important thing! Recalling that enormous TV screens had been installed to the left and right of the covered platform where the services had taken place, I pushed forward to one of them. Everything that was happening below could be seen on these screens like in the palm of your hand!
Now the priests throw before themselves wreaths of green leaves tied with ribbons. And now they pull them back out from the left side. Obviously they are floating away with the stream. Yes, but the Jordan flows from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, that is, from left to right, if you look at it from our shore… That means that the stream should take the wreaths to the right and the priests should be pulling them out of the right side… But they throw the wreaths in front of themselves again and again pull them from the left side… I watched, enchanted, this action, which is repeated many times—apparently for those of little faith, like me. I looked around in confusion and my eyes met with those of Presbytera. She was almost laughing as she looked at my shocked expression, and gestures to me that we need to hurry.
Why is the water in the Jordan salty?
I gathered the just-sanctified Baptismal water into a bottle I had brought from St. Petersburg. You don’t need to go down to the river to do this because the water is piped upward. I poured some holy water into a plastic cup, took a big gulp, and froze with surprise: the water is bitter-salty to the taste! A bold supposition flickered through my head: Could this water have come from the Dead Sea to this place when it was ‘turned back’? But there is no time to ponder this because hundreds of pilgrims in baptismal robes are already standing at the entrance to the river like a huge white cloud. On the other side of the barrier the Isreali soldiers are running around. One of them energetically waves his automatic rifle and shouts indefatigably in perfect Russian at everyone not to crowd around the turnstiles, not to step on the barriers, and to take a few steps backward. After an hour of marking place our “white cloud” starts murmuring indistinctly; in the fore you can hear soldiers squabbling with the pilgrims, who are angry about the extremely slow pace of the queue. To my left is a group of people with a priest at the head, singing harmoniously, “When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan…” Soon I saw with amazement how they walked singing through the turnstile. I suggested to my neighbor on the right that we sing the troparion to the feast. They replied with embarrassment that they didn’t know the words. It was the same with my neighbors to the rear and to the side. I started singing the troparion quietly to myself. It became easier to stand there, but I didn’t notice any progress in the queue ahead…
Two hours later I managed to push through the turnstile, ran down the steps to the wooden platform, quickly took off my shoes and approached the water. Now I had to immerse myself totally three times. I took a step into the water. My leg was burned by the cold as with boiling water! I forced myself to take another step, then another… Shivering from the cold I dipped three times into the icy water, mumbling to myself, “In the name of the Father! And the Son! And the Holy Spirit! Amen! And then shot out onto platform like a cork out of a bottle. My whole body was burning, like after a good Russian bathhouse! The weariness of three hours on my feet disappeared as if it had never been—to the contrary I was overcome by a feeling of physical lightness and was spilling over with unbelievable joy!
The first thing I did after climbing into the bus was to ask Presbytera Maria why the waters of the Jordan are salty.
“What? Did you already swallow some?” she said with a horrified look on her face.
“Of course I did! Wasn’t I supposed to?” I said, perplexed.
“Of course not! The waters of the Jordan are salty because fertilizers from the surrounding fields flow into it along with the ground water! How are you feeling—does your stomach hurt yet?”
“Why should it hurt? This is Theophany water!” I would not give up. “Don’t you drink the water that has been blessed in the Jordan?!”
“We add a few drops of this water to a bottle of ordinary fresh water and drink it only after that.”
I lost a little steam after such a prosaic explanation for the saltiness of the waters of the Jordan… But how wonderful it would be if the Dead Sea were transformed on this great feast!
My joy caught up with me in St. Petersburg when I found a citation on the internet from a book by Archimandrite Ambrose (Yurasov), On Faith and Salvation: “On the eve of the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Orthodox Christians cut wooden crosses and fix lit candles to them, and the Jordan River carries them to the Dead Sea. But on the day of the Baptism, when the waters of the Jordan are turned back and flow away from the Dead Sea, the crosses are carried back. And the usually fresh water of the Jordan becomes salty.”