As the pea gravel crunched beneath my feet, I couldn’t help but think of the Last Supper where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The chalky dust not only covered my shoes, but permeated the air as we walked the path to the spot where tradition says Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.
Just an hour outside of Amman, Jordan, we were about two hours ahead of Pope Benedict’s arrival at the site, part of his four-day visit to the country. It was mid-afternoon on Sunday as our bus dropped off the crush of media covering the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land. Photographers and reporters from around the world were packed into three buses on this hot and dry day. Site staff gave us the option of waiting for the Pope in the parking lot where he would be greeted by Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania — or we could walk a quarter mile down the pea gravel path to the Baptism Site. Most everyone chose the latter.
Dozens of us scoped out the best vantage point to view (and photograph) the Holy Father, who was to stop at a platform overlooking the spot designated as the place where John the Baptist christened Our Lord in the muddy waters of the Jordan. It wasn’t impressive. Scraggly bushes surrounded the area which seemed to be fed by a tributary from the river itself. However, archeological experts have determined that early Christians built a church to commemorate the spot as the place of Christ’s baptism. When the area flooded, they came back and built again. That resolve has convinced many that this was the biblical site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan described in John 1:28 and John 10:40.
I found a perfect spot to await the Holy Father, only 20 feet from the platform. After chatting with colleagues for about 90 minutes, a convoy of eight-passenger golf carts arrived with security personnel, followed by the Holy Father, the King, Queen, Prince Ghazi among others. The Holy Father’s vehicle stopped for five minutes as a site expert described the scene for the Pope. But rather than disembarking to take in the site from the viewing platform as planned, the papal cart spend on down the path to an awaiting crowd of about 800 pilgrims.
Greg Tarczynski, a well-known photographer for Catholic and other media outlets, had parked himself on the muddy river bank for nearly two hours to get a picture that was not to be. We all scrambled down the path to the stage where the Pope was to bless the cornerstones for two churches planned for the Baptism site — a Latin-rite church already under construction and a Melkite house of worship. However, the military security (who seem just as confused by the papal entourage’s change of plans) held us back. We found out later that we were detained until the royal entourage could leave the area.
We got to the platform just as the ceremony got under way. I stood on a chair as close as possible to the stage and got a descent shot of the Pope blessing the cornerstones. After the papal convoy departed, we were blessed with an incredible view of the sun setting in the west, finally dipping below the horizon in the land where Jesus walked. A fitting end to a day I won’t soon forget.