And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;
The Jordan was regarded by the Israelites as the glory of their country, for it is the only river in Palestine which always flows in a copious stream, though its sunken, tumultuous, twisted course, which, between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, winds for some two hundred miles over a space only about sixty miles in direct length, has made it useless, for navigation, or as an attraction to human communities, except at the plain of Jericho. The great miracle when the Hebrews passed over made it sacred to them, so that its waters were already regarded with reverence when Elisha commanded Naaman to wash in them as a cure for his leprosy. Hallowed still more by the preaching of John and the baptism of Christ, the Jordan has been the favourite goal of all pilgrimages to the Holy Land in every age since the first Christian centuries. As early as the days of Constantine, to be baptized in its waters was deemed a great privilege, while in the sixth century Antoninus relates that marble steps led down into the water on both sides at the spot where it was believed our Lord had been baptized, while a wooden cross rose in the middle of the stream. Upon the eve of the Epiphany, he adds, "great vigils are held here, a vast crowd of people is collected, and after the cock has crowed for the fourth or fifth time, matins begin. Then, as the day commences to dawn, the deacons begin the holy mysteries, and celebrate them in the open air; the priest descends into the river, and all who are to be baptized go to him." Holy water was even in that early age carried away by masters of vessels who visited it as pilgrims, to sprinkle their ships before a voyage; and we are told that all pilgrims alike went into the water wearing a linen garment, which they sacredly preserved as a winding-sheet to be wrapped round them at their death. The scene of the yearly bathing of pilgrims now is near the ford, about two miles above the Dead Sea, and each sect having its own particular spot which it fondly believes to be exactly that at which our Saviour was baptized. The season of baptism has been changed from the colder time of Epiphany to that of Easter, and as the date of the latter feast differs in the Roman and Greek Churches, no collisions take place. Each Easter Monday thousands of pilgrims start in a great caravan from Jerusalem under the protection of the Turkish government, a white flag and loud music going before them, while Turkish soldiers, with the green standard of the Prophet, close the long procession. On the Greek Easter Monday the same spectacle is repeated, four or five thousand pilgrims joining in this second caravan. The streets of Jerusalem are, for the time, deserted, to see the vast cavalcade set out: women in long white dresses and veils, men in flowing robes and turbans, covering the space outside the walls and the slopes and hollow of the Valley of Jehoshaphat in a parti-coloured crowd, eager to see the start. At last the procession streams from the gate and pours along the camel-track towards Bethany and the Jordan; some on foot, others on horseback, or on asses, mules, or camels The broad space between the Sultan's Spring and Eriha is soon an extemporized town; tents of all sizes rising as by magic, while at night the plain is lighted up by the flames of countless fires, Next morning they start from this resting-place before sunrise, and march or ride by the light of the Passover moon towards the brink of the Jordan, but the pace of such a confused throng is slow. To help them on the first stages of their way multitudinous torches blaze in the van, and huge watchfires, kindled at the sides of the road, guard them past the worst places, till, as daylight breaks, the first of the throng reach the sacred river. Before long the high bank above the trees and reeds is crowded with horses, mules, asses, and camels in terrible confusion; old, young, men, women, and children, of many nationalities, all pressing together in seemingly inextricable disorder. Yet they manage to clear themselves after a time, and then, dismounting, rush into the water with the most business-like quiet, too earnest and practical to express much emotion. Some strip themselves naked, but most of them plunge in clad in a white gown, which is to serve hereafter as a shroud, consecrated by its present use. Families bathe together, the father immersing the infant and his other children that they may not need to make the pilgrimage in later life. Most of them keep near the shore, but some strike out boldly into the current; some choose one spot, some another, for their bath. In little more than two hours the banks are once more deserted, the pilgrims remounting their motley army of beasts with the same grave quiet as they had shown on leaving them for a time, and before noon they are back again at their encampment. They now sleep till the middle of the night, when, roused by the kettledrums of the Turks, they once more, by the light of the moon, torches, and bonfires, turn their faces to the steep pass up to Jerusalem in such silence that they might all be gone without waking you if you slept near them. It was thus with a great caravan of pilgrims who encamped a few yards from my tent near the Lake of Galilee. Noisy enough by night, with firing of pistols and guns, they struck their tents and moved off in the morning without breaking my sleep.
(C. Geikie, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;