All Saints ~ Saints in Jordan
We have had a fantastic time! Everything went to plan – apart perhaps from the snow on the motorway to the airport last Saturday morning! We had a five- hour flight to our hotel in middle of Amman, Jordan’s capital. Most of us watched films all the way. On arrival we were met by our lovely and knowledgeable guide, who was very helpfully called ‘Mo’. We could cope with that. All we needed was a bus driver called Jack, but that wasn’t to be – he was called Sam.
On Sunday, we we went to the ancient citadel of what was at very stages in history known as Rabbath-Ammon in the Old Testament, Philadelphia in the New Testament and now Amman. It has a wonderful view, well-kept ruins, and nearby a wonderfully preserved amphitheatre and a museum. Then in the afternoon we visited the Roman city of Jerash, which is very evocative of how a Roman city was laid out and lived in.
On Monday morning we went to a rehabilitation centre for deaf people at Joffeh – below sea level – and very hot. It was wonderful to see handicrafts and we were given out first taste of Jordanian generous hospitality. They gave us a souvenir for the church, and inscription carved in wood, an Islamic inscription which incorporates a Cross. We moved onto Madaba, where there is a very ancient map of the Middle East made in mosaic on the floor. It is quite undecipherable without explanation, but as an ancient artefact is quite unique and special. After lunch we went to see a Mosaic Factory, and then to the pinnacle of the day, atop Mount Nebo. Mont Nebo is the summit from which Moses saw the Promised Land, and has commanding views over Jericho, even as far as Jerusalem. It was a place to survey the world, and for us, after having celebrated Holy Communion, a place for us to survey the scenery of our own lives: where we have come from and where we are going. What promises has God fulfilled? What lies in store?
We were greeted there by a Philippino party, who were still over the moon about how fantastic the Olympics were, and were full of praise and joy for London and our country.
On Tuesday we went to see the ruins of the Castle at Macchereus built by Herod the great, where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded. Then onto to Um el Rassas, where in the sand there are mosaics to uncover and a great one which has been revealed and restored at what is now a World Heritage site. From there we went to Karak, site of a large crusader castle, which we explored, before driving south to Petra to stay in a Bedouin style hotel in a converted village.
Petra on Wednesday was for many the highlight. Not known to the ancient world, it is now rightly designated one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Built by the Nabateans, its grandeur is quite indescribable. Some of us returned at night to a Bedouin presentation of music by candlelight, in front of the atmospherically candlelit Treasury building. The connection with John the Baptist, incidentally, is that he was killed because he criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. Herod divorced his first wife, who was Nabatean, presumably from Petra.
On Thursday we managed to do something perhaps even better, which was to drive into the desert at Wadi Rhum. Forever associated with Lawrence of Arabia, it is a barren beautiful landscape, which we explored by rather beat up old jeeps: a bumpy, exhilarating, fantastic journey into another world and culture. Many of us will not forget the superb lunch, surprisingly clean loos, and the experience of relaxing under a canopy in 40 degree heat, drinking coffee and meeting wonderful people. The man who cooked our lunch hitched a ride back into town afterwards!
Then it was onto our Dead Sea resort for our final 24 hours. And that Friday, our final day, was in some sense the most special. We drove the short distance to the site at Bethany beyond the Jordan, where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It was 100 degrees in the shade, as it may well have been all those years ago. We made a mini-pilgrimage at the end of the big one, walking in stages, singing a hymn at each of three stops. When we first saw the river, we sang Cwm Rhondda, and our authentic Swansea-man Geraint gave us a little insight into Ann Williams who wrote the original Welsh words.
‘Guide me O thou great redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land’.
‘When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside’.
How appropriate these words were! And there was a little to be anxious of: the area is a militarized zone with Israeli and Jordanian soldiers positioned opposite each other in defensive, albeit now friendly mode. We progressed to the site where Jesus was actually baptized, now dry because the river has moved its course. There we sang, ‘Be still for the presence of the Lord is moving in this place’. And we were, for sure, standing on holy ground.
Then we went into a lovely little Greek Orthodox church, beautifully decorated, and it began clear that it would have a lovely acoustic. So we sang the two verses of Cwm Rhondda that are not usually sung:
‘Lord I trust they mighty power, wondrous are thy works of old’,
and ‘Musing o my habitation, musing on my heavenly home’.
The harmonies of that Welsh tune swelled the space and we all felt very good indeed!
And then we walked the short distance to the veranda overlooking the stream itself. Both banks of the Jordan were busy, on the Israeli side, only the width of a swimming pool away, folk in white shifts were being baptized by immersion, or simply immersing themselves in acts of penitence and prayer. An act of faith, perhaps not only in God, but in their ability not to catch some disease from the rather green and slow flowing waters. Some were swimming across from one side to the other, a symbolic unification of the Holy Land, making a bridge rather then a divide of the waters – joining rather than separating Bible lands. The soldiers looked on, fingers on triggers, but with no intention of intervening. It was probably just the same when Jesus came to Jordan nearly two thousand years ago.
And so we began our service – the culmination of our pilgrim’s journey through the land that had yielded to us far more than it promised. And we began with the hymn – ‘When Jesus came to Jordan, to be baptized by John.’ Vic read to us from the beginning of Mark’s gospel, where we are told of Jesus’ baptism, and of what is effectively the first time the Holy Trinity manifests himself. God the Father announces through the descending spirit in the dove, that ‘this is my son’.
Then we had a shared recollection, going around the group saying where and when we were baptized. Some were baptized here in St Mary Magdalene’s, nearly eighty years ago, or only seven years ago. Others were baptized by immersion in churches in other countries. It was good to arrive at that place and think that our destination was effectively our beginning: we had arrived at our beginnings, as T S Eliot once wrote, with the aim of knowing it for the first time:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Then, as John taught, we confessed our sins and renewed our vows of baptism, turning to Christ, and rejecting all that is evil. A good thing to do as back in England, folk were still celebrating Halloween in its commercialized, trivialized, ghoulish way. It was good to note that Halloween does not exist in the Middle East - it would probably be an insult to Islam, just as in fact, it is to Christianity.
We sang the Taizé chant ‘There is one lord, one faith, one baptism’ as folk touched the waters or took samples. And then with a final exchange of the peace we found ourselves surrounded by a great throng- a cloud of witnesses who had appeared from nowhere. And we concluded, as one must surely, by singing ‘On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry, announces that the Lord is nigh’.
I mentioned Halloween, which while it passed us by on the trivial level, was in fact an experience we were living out as our happy band of pilgrims. For Halloween is the eve of the feast of all Hallows, the feast of All Saints which we commemorate this morning. And while we spent the day itself meandering through the glorious ruins of Petra, our act of devotion at the River Jordan was, at the deep level, below sea level, as it were, about our common fellowship as and with the saints. For we are all saints. The saints are the Holy Ones of God, who on another shore rejoice still in the communion of faith, in union with Christ and each other. We join with them whenever we celebrate communion – that is, after all, why it is called communion. We are at one with other Christians, alive and deceased to this world but very much alive in the resurrection.
And what is a Christian? A Christian is a baptized person. Baptism is the sign and seal of membership of the Church of God. In baptism we begin our communion, which we build on, celebrate and grow in throughout our lives. Edward Smith was confirmed yesterday at St Paul’s Cathedral, and we rejoice with him as he continues his Christian journey in communion with all of us, saints. And just as we were united with all Christians at the river, we were especially united with all of you here, and we took your prayers with us, and prayed for you while we were there.
By renewing our baptismal vows at All Saints-tide by the Jordan, we were able to emphasize for ourselves, here and there, that we are one in the spirit, united across time and space as the body of Christ – in bread and wine, in baptism, in life and in death. This is the message and the hope of All Saintstide, and it is not a pity at all that we had to go all the way to Jordan to realise it. Indeed it was a great privilege and a joy to do so, for which we shall all, I’m sure, give great and renewed thanks to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 04/11/12