By Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, with Theodore Pritsis
As we enter 2015 and celebrate the Feast of Theophany, Orthodox Christians are presented with an opportune moment to reflect on a recently passed resolution of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), on the International Decade for Action “Water for Life 2005-2015.” It’s a fair bet that most Orthodox Christians, indeed, most U.S. citizens, are unaware that we are entering the final year in a decade of efforts spearheaded by the UNGA aimed towards achieving the goal of “sustainable development of water resources,” and more fundamentally, towards ensuring the actualization of “the human right to clean drinking water and sanitation,” a right which the UNGA recognize as “essential to the realisation of all human rights.”
It’s probably a safe bet that most of us do not stop to think about the enormous blessing that is our access to clean water and sanitation, much less to consider the implications choosing/having to purchase bottled water at the nearest grocery or convenience store. It’s also likely that we are unaware of the fact that regular, unimpeded access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a point of growing tension and conflict in the Holy Land, especially at the Jordan River, the place of the original Theophania.
Before turning to consider water in the Holy Land, let’s review some basic data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, Georgia: as of 2010, an estimated 780 million men, women, and children worldwide (11% of the world’s population) did not have access to safe water sources; more than 2.5 billion people (over 35% of the global population) did not have access to sustainable sanitation; and, of the 801,000 children under the age of five die from illnesses caused by unsafe and inadequate water for drinking, hygiene, and sanitation. Even these few statistics should be enough, at the least, to raise curiosity about, and more justifiably, to end indifference to, water as a major human rights issue in the 21st century.
Within the specific context of the Holy Land, the urgency and complexity of water as a human rights issue takes on tragic dimensions—for, in the lands of Jesus Christ’s birth, teaching and preaching, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, and in the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized by St. John, the Forerunner, universal access to clean water for drinking, hygiene, and sanitation, is anything but a given. The Jordan River system, along with the Sea of Galilee and limited underground sources, provide water to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. However, geography and politics, and especially, more than a half-century of continuing war, conflict, and refusal to recognize that water unites all humanity, are combining to make the salvific waters of the Jordan River into a stark expression of humanity’s failings.
Even so, the Theophania event offers a reminder of hope for overcoming the limitations of the Fallen state. Likewise, at a time when courageous and visionary leadership from all parties and brokers to the “Israeli-Palestinian Problem” is in staggeringly short supply, the example of John the Baptizer is worth recollection.
The event of Theophany focuses on the awesome synthesis of Jesus Christ’s divine and human natures. Popularly referred to as Epiphany, the Theophania is, literally, the visible manifestation of God as man, with the public revelation, for the first time, of the Divine nature of Jesus as God, the Christ and Co-Eternal Son. Theophany inaugurates the salvific mission of Jesus of Nazareth as human, and the exact location of Christ’s baptism, five kilometers north of the Dead Sea, carries enormous historical significance. It marks the very spot where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River led by Moses’ successor, Joshua (Jesus) of Navi. It is also the site of the Prophet Elijah’s ascent into Heaven on a chariot of fire, ordaining the Prophet Elisha as his successor. The succession of these significant events, which culminate in the Baptism of the Incarnate Logos, has transformed the Jordan River into one of the most frequented pilgrimage sites throughout the Holy Land, from the period of Late Antiquity to the present.
Pilgrimage to the Jordan River has been challenged by the unrelenting conditions of conflict in lands surrounding Christ’s baptismal location. Pilgrimages were made difficult from 1948-1994, due to the Israeli-Jordanian conflict, and while the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty normalized diplomatic relations between those two countries, access to the Jordan River occurs within the broader geopolitical context of the Holy Land, which can hardly be characterized as normal. Diplomatic complications and physical security dangers notwithstanding, thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world continue to visit the site of Jesus Christ’s baptism.
On January 18th of every year (the Julian Calendar equivalent to the Gregorian Calendar date of January 6th) according to the New Calendar, His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem and all Palestine, along with a delegation from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, including thousands of Christian pilgrims, travels to the Jordan River, where an agiasmos (a service of sanctification of the waters) service is celebrated. For those able to participate in the Theophany blessing of the waters of the Jordan River, the energy of the moment is palpable and enlivening, a combination of humility, joy, and hope.
In contributing to this post, Theodore Pritsis recounted the details of one of the Theophany services that he attended over the past two years in his service in the Holy Land: “I watched as hundreds of Christian pilgrims jumped into the Jordan River’s frigid waters—as if it were a scorching summer day in Jericho, where temperatures reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit—embracing the baptismal experience as a hajji, a Christian who is re-baptized in the waters of the Jordan. I will never forget the perfectly positioned dove on the Patriarchal staff, which eventually flew off and landed on the bare head of His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, who continued to read calmly the Gospel passage for Theophany. In a very personal kind of way, this was the revelation of God for me. It all made sense: this was the joy of the Lord, majesty by way of simplicity. God chose to reveal Himself by allowing a dove to land on the bare head of the bishop of the Resurrection. This was our Baptized Lord’s method of assuring us not to fear, that He is always with us and that He is always beside the suffering Christians in the Holy Land. With each passing generation, being a Christian in the Holy Land becomes significantly harder due to the mass exodus of Palestinian Christians from their homeland. The Theophany blessing at the waters of the Jordan River, is a reminder of the organic connection of mankind to his physical environment, and a comforting expression of the fact that Christians are a part of the natural fabric of society in the Middle East, such that the integrity and reconciliation in this region must support on a strong, vibrant, living, Christian presence.”
Of course, the revelatory centerpiece of the Theophania events is also connected to another message, namely, the heroism of John the Forerunner. John’s role, within the context of soteriology, is not limited to the event of the Baptism. The title of “Forerunner, o Prodromos” that the Church attributes to the son of Elizabeth and Zachariah suggests the anticipation, inspiration, and radical boldness, of John as the Baptizer of Christ. Christ described the preeminent significance of John the Forerunner as “the greatest man born of a woman until that point” (Mark 11:11), and patristic understandings of John the Baptizer present him as a sort of boundary between the Old and New Testaments. According to Augustine of Hippo, “because John represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb.”
In his role as Forerunner, John is fearless, yet his fearlessness does not trump his humility, when he quotes the Prophet Isaiah, describing himself as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” (John 1:23). John utilizes baptism as a way of encouraging people to turn away from sin and to seek righteousness, and in the process, expresses the centrality of water for healing, reconciliation, peace, and the fullness of life—for all human beings.
This year, as Orthodox Christians commemorate the Theophany events at the River Jordan in the Holy Land—the revelation of Christ as Son of God and the new, salvific beginning offered through the Holy Spirit, as well as the humility and fearlessness of John, the Forerunner and Baptist—by attending agiasmo services and departing church with bottles filled with blessed water, we would do well to pray for those deprived of the human right to clean water. The waters of the Jordan, which baptized the icon of God the Father, the Incarnate Christ, the physical manifestation of Love, offered the reconciliation between the created and the Uncreated to which Christians are called to aspire. Water reminds us of the potential to move beyond the limitations of our human condition, just as our very physical survival as human beings is impossible without clean water. John the Forerunner offers us a prototype for commitment to helping in every effort to ensure that all human beings around the world enjoy the right of unfettered access to clean water. As we celebrate the Feast of Theophany in the year 2015, we should be mindful that this is also the concluding year of the International Decade for Action “Water for Life 2005-2015” proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Orthodox Christians should commit to the message of the UNGA resolution, leading by example, and we should connect that message to the Baptist’s unceasing proclamation from the deserts of Palestine, to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).
Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group.
Theodore Pritsis is Advisor-Liaison to His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, and holds both an M.Div. and M.Th. from the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.