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Archive for the ‘Baptism in the Holy Land’ Category

Holy Water Guide: Customs, History, And Bible Sources

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Holy Water

Holy water is water that has been blessed, that is, set aside for spiritual use, by a cleric. Predominantly a Roman Catholic sacramental (little sacrament) and the blessing is done by a priest or bishop. This sacrament can be found in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity but has also spread to other denominations as well.

Christians do not believe the water is in any way magical, the power comes from the blessing, not the water itself.

Holy Water is used mainly in the sacrament of baptism which includes holy water being poured on the recipient’s head. Holy water can also kept in a Baptistery, or smaller font, called a stoup which is placed near the entrance to the church.

Traditionally people dip their fingertips into the water and make the Sign of the Cross to bless themselves and serve as a reminder of their baptism at birth. Holy water is also sometimes sprinkled upon the congregation during the Mass; this is called aspersion. It can also be sprinkled on people or items when they are blessed, as part of the prayers of blessing. For instance, in Alaska, the fishing boats are sprinkled with holy water at the start of the fishing season as the priest prays for the crews’ safety and success.

The use of holy water is based on the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan and the Orthodox interpretation of this event. In this view, John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, and the people came to have their sins washed away by the water. Since Jesus had no sin, but was God himself, his baptism had the effect of Jesus blessing the water, making it holy, that is used fully for its original created purpose to be an instrument of life.  Jesus’ baptism is commemorated in the Orthodox Church at the Feast of Theophany (literally “God shining forth”) on January 6.

“It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove.  Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Mark 1:9-11

Thousands of Visitors to the Holy Land, follow in the footsteps of Jesus by partaking in the Sacrament of Baptism.

History of Holy Water Use

A document known as the Apostolic Constitutions, written around the year 375 AD, attributes the first use of holy water to St. Matthew the Apostle.

Holy water was originally used in baptisms but Gregory of Tour (c538-594) taught that God could work miracles such as healings through the use of holy water. This belief spread through the church. As a result churches began to make a container available near the entrance where believers could obtain some for personal use at home.

St. Teresa of Avila believed that holy water could be successfully used to repel evil and temptations. She wrote, “I know by frequent experience that there is nothing which puts the devils to flight like Holy water.”

Modern-Day Use

Holy water is used to wash the priest’s hands during the Mass. Once used it must be disposed of properly. It is not just dumped; there is a special basin with a hinged lid to distinguish it from a regular sink, which leads directly into the ground.

Often parishioners will bring holy water home with them and put some in small fonts hung at their door. Many Churches have special dispensers to provide their congregation with Holy water for this specific purpose.

The ritual of consecrating holy water traditionally is performed on Holy Saturday and during the vigil of Pentecost.

Biblical Basis for Holy Water

In Exodus 14 God delivered His people by use of the water of the Red (or Reed) Sea. Although Moses did not bless this water, it could be considered blessed by virtue or God’s parting of it.

In John 7:37-39 Jesus speaks of Living Water available to those who believe in Him. The water symbolized the Holy Spirit. 


The Jordan River

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Jordan RiverThe River Jordan, in which John the Baptist baptized his cousin Jesus of Nazareth, is a river in Southwest Asia which flows into the Dead Sea. It is considered to be one of the world’s most sacred rivers.

It originates approximately 200 meters above sea level on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, Israel. It ends its course at the lowest spot in the world, the Dead Sea, at 420 meters below sea level. Along its course, the Jordan feeds two lakes: the Hula (now almost completely drained) and the Sea of Galilee. In its course from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, the Jordan travels a winding 230 kilometers, covering just 105 kilometers in a straight line.

Numerous references to the Jordan River appear both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, indicating its biblical importance and sanctity. In fact, the Jordan is mentioned about 175 times in the Old Testament and about 15 times in the New Testament. The word ‘Jordan’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘Yarden’ {ירדן) meaning descender. This name is appropriate for the river that courses from the heights of Mt Hermon to the depths of the Dead Sea.

In the Bible

The first mention of the Jordan is in the story of the separation of Abraham and Lot. The Bible tells us of Lot’s decision to settle in the Jordan Valley:

“And Lot lifted up his eyes and beheld all the plan of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere.”
Genesis 13:10

The Jordan appears as the scene of several miracles, the first taking place when Jordan near Jericho, was crossed by the Israelites under Joshua (Joshua 3:15-17). Later the two tribes and the half tribe that settled east of the Jordan built a large altar on its banks as a ‘witness’ between them and other tribes (Joshua 22:10).
In the period of the First Temple, the Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8) Elisha also healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters.
The river was spoken of as an important defensive weapon (Judges 3:28; 7:24-25; 12:5-6). David escaped across the river during Absalom’s rebellion (11 Sam. 17:20-22).
The Jordan was crossed by Judas Maccabeus and his brother Jonathan Maccabeus during their war with the Nabataeans (1Maccabees 5:24). Later it was the scene of the battle between Jonathan and Bacchides in which the latter was defeated.

In the New Testament

Numerous references to the Jordan River appear in the New Testament. It states that in those days John the Baptist came preaching and saying

“repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”…and people confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

“And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Luke 3:3

“The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River”
Mark 1:4-5

In the period of the Second Temple, both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth made their homes here on the banks of the River Jordan.

For hundreds of years, the Jordan remained desolate. Pilgrims and adventurous travelers described the descent to the Jordan, baptism and sailing as one of the most exciting events of their journey in the Holy Land.

In modern times

The region changed dramatically in 1932, when the Naharayim hydraulic plant was built to utilize the water of the Jordan and the Yarmukh rivers to produce electricity. At that time, the Degania dam, located next to the Yardenit Baptismal Site, was constructed. In the 1960s, the water which would normally flow in the Jordan River was diverted via the national water carrier to the densely inhabited central region of Israel. The Jordanians dammed the Yarmukh, a key source of water to the river, diverting its water to the Ghour Channel, on the Jordanian side of the Jordan Rift Valley.

Quality of water

Today there is practically no natural flow of water along the Jordan River.  Yardenit is an exception. At the site, the water flows from the Sea of Galilee into the Jordan. The quality of the water at Yardenit is of the same high standard as the water in the Sea of Galilee. The management of Yardenit works together with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Water to regularly check the water quality, ensuring that all Pilgrims feel safe while experiencing purification and spiritual rebirth.

John the Baptist

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John the Baptist was born around the same time period as Jesus is revered in Christianity as the forerunner of Jesus. His mother Elizabeth was said to be a relative of Mary and his father the priest Zechariah. There is a strong resemblance between John the Baptist and Jesus. Their fathers were both informed of their births by an angel, they began missionary work at a similar age and they were both executed by Romans.

From a young age John lived in the Judean desert either as a hermit or as part of a Jewish monastic community called the Essenes. It is said that he resembled the prophet Elijah and he “wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.”
Mark 1:6

He attracted a lot of attention in 29 C.E. as a prophet in the Jordan Valley, when he preached the imminent wrathful judgment of God and announced the coming of the Messiah and called on his congregation to repent and be baptized. John’s ministry centered on a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” Mark 1:4

John baptized hundreds of believers in the Jordan River and this is where he also baptized Jesus. While early icons portray Jesus standing waist-deep in the Jordan with John pouring water over him, his baptism was probably by immersion. As Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit came on him and a voice declared that he was the Son of God.

John was imprisoned for criticizing the illegal marriage of Herod Antipas and was executed after Herod’s stepdaughter Salome demanded his head as a reward for dancing for the king’s guests.


The Baptism of Jesus

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John the Baptist baptized his cousin Jesus of Nazareth at the Jordan River, which flows south from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea that John the Baptist. We learn this from the different scriptures in which the Baptism of Jesus is recounted, such as: Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34.

The exact spot of the baptism on the Jordan River is not known. What is known is that John refused at first to confer his baptism on Christ for Christ had no need to repent. But Christ said “suffer it to be so now.”

The act of baptism was that Christ was identifying Himself with sinners. It is also a symbol of death and resurrection plus it marks his first public identification with those sins he would bear. Also the fundamental feature of all the scriptural narratives is that Jesus is anointed with the Spirit which accomplishes two things. It inaugurates the public ministry of Christ and establishes the messianic character of His ministry.


Baptism of Christ Domenico Ghirlandaio

The Baptism of Christ, Raphael, 1518-19. Christus Rex

The Origins and Significance of Baptism

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The Old Testament describes the immersion in water for the purpose of purification and cleansing but there is no mention of the word baptism.
“It must be put in water, and it shall be unclean until the even; so it shall be cleansed.”
Leviticus 11:32


In the days of the First Temple, dipping objects in water was a limited practice, a marginal aspect of daily Jewish life in the Land of Israel. The few instances when people bathed for the purpose of purification were clear-cut cases of contamination, such as leprosy.

For this purpose, one could bathe in any natural water, such as a sea, a spring or a river. Thus Elisha suggests that Naaman, captain of the Syrian army, who suffered from leprosy, immerse himself in the Jordan:
“Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”
2 Kings 5:14

When the Jewish nation moved to Babylon, under the leadership of Ezra and Zerubavel, the interest in purification grew. Man-made purification baths came into use during the Hasmonean rule. The daily religious use of such baths was the result of the adoption (conscious or not) of various Hellenistic customs. The earliest evidence of the notion that immersion in water purifies a person of sin is traced to the Judean Desert cult (the Essenes), which opposed the Hellenistic influence on holy life in Jerusalem, particularly on the priesthood. In their view, such purification was possible only for themselves, the “sons of the light.”


Baptism of Christ in the Jordan

John’s baptism was essentially different. In contrast to the insulated cult of the Judean Desert,
“The whole Judean countryside and
all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.
Confessing their sins, they were baptized
by him in the Jordan River”
Mark 1:5
John’s baptism was the basis of Christian baptism, which is meant for everyone, and is preceded by a personal confession.
The baptism of Jesus, who was free of all sin, was a sign of his revelation as the Messiah, and the beginning of his missionary work The sign was not the baptism itself, but the descent of the Holy Spirit afterwards, when Jesus began to pray, accompanied by a voice from heaven:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”
Luke 3:22
The church baptism of the believer is not a simple imitation of Jesus’ baptism by John. Jesus himself notes the importance of water to the rebirth of the believer
: “… no one can enter the kingdom of God
unless he is born of water and the Spirit”
John 3:5.

With the development of the Christian church, new believers were accepted to “Israel of the Spirit” through baptism. Converts were “reborn” of water and Spirit, entered a new life, adopted into the holy family and enlightened; they died and were resurrected with the Messiah, received forgiveness for their sins and began taking part in the Holy Spirit.
The baptismal rites conducted in the different Christian churches around the world today take a completely different form. In fact, they are all nuances of the simple immersion in the Jordan River.

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