This week, all over the world, Christians are celebrating the Epiphany, also known as the Feast of Theophany. While the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches mainly celebrate the visit of the Biblical Magi to baby Jesus in Bethlehem, the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
In Romania Epiphany is celebrated all over the country, waters are blessed and purity and cleanliness are celebrated. Many people fill bottles with the blessed water and believe in its miraculous ability to heal and protect from diseases. After blessing the waters, Priests throw crosses into the lakes and rivers. Several men jump after those crosses and try to catch them as they believe doing so will earn God’s blessing and give them good luck throughout the coming year.
This year in Florida at Tarpon Springs’ annual Epiphany celebration 60 boys were selected to dive into the springs to retrieve a wooden cross thrown into the waters by a priest. Here too, it is believed that the one who finds the wooden cross earns God’s blessing.
This makes me think. What would this tradition look like in today’s Jordan…
Visualizing people jumping and diving in the Jordan River, I thought back to my last visit to the river with US Ambassador to Israel Shapiro several weeks ago and immediately a feeling of disgust overcomes me. The images I recall are alarming and difficult to describe in words. Therefore, here are some photos taken at Alumot dam to aid your imagination.
South of the small earthen Alumot dam, there is not much left of the world-renowned and once mighty Jordan River. Israel, Syria and Jordan have all diverted its upstream waters for domestic and agricultural uses, leaving precious little fresh water for the river and its once thriving ecosystem. Diversion of over 98 per cent of its fresh water, in addition to discharge of large quantities of untreated sewage, threatens to irreversibly damage the river and the whole Valley. With Israel, Syria and Jordan, each grabbing as much clean water as they can, it is ironically the sewage that is keeping the river alive today.
“Entry to the water is Prohibited!” Sign at the Kaser el Yehud Baptism Site, March 2009.
Certainly the Epiphany celebration at the Jordan River would be a nearly impossible and a potential health risk to the ceremony’s participants. The divers are well advised not to open their eyes and even if they would, in the polluted waters any cross would be impossible to find. It is hard to imagine that this polluted river could serve as a symbol of purity – quite the opposite effect of protecting and healing people.
– This blog was written by Josef Wenninger, Intern at the FoEME Tel Aviv office.