The Jordan River does not just flow through the length of Palestine. It also flows through the length of the Christian Church. The Orthodox especially love the Jordan, since all our baptisms take place in it: when the priest prays for the water in which the candidate is to be baptized, he prays that God may “grant unto it the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan”. Thus wherever the church may be located in which Orthodox catechumens are baptized, the waters in which they are immersed are those of the Jordan River.
It is a great burden for any river to bear, and especially a river so confined as that of the Jordan. It was wider in former days, for the modern damming of the river near its source up north has restricted its flow somewhat. When one approaches the Jordan River today, it looks so small, so narrow. When I stood on its banks last year during my visit to the Holy Land, I guessed that a good throwing arm could easily cast a stone across it to the opposite bank. I had thought that a river so famous and so rich in Christian symbolism would be wider and more impressive.
That symbolism goes far back. The river formed one of the natural boundaries of the Holy Land, so much so that the tribes of Israel located east of it thought that their western brethren would inevitably conclude that the Trans-jordanian tribes were somehow less a part of Israel than those located to the west of it. (Read all about in Joshua 22.) The crossing of the Jordan in the days of Joshua’s conquest was like the crossing of the Rubicon: after that, there was no turning back, and God miraculously parted the waters of the river to allow Israel to pass through that boundary quickly and safely. That river-crossing became a symbol of the soul’s entry into the Promised Land of heaven and its eternal inheritance. The river marked not just the boundary of the Holy Land, but the boundary of earth, and crossing that boundary meant crossing from this life to the next, passing through the cold waters of death and entering into heaven. The old spiritual hymn says it well: “Michael row the boat ashore. River Jordan is chilly and cold; chills the body but not the soul.” The Michael rowing the boat is Michael the archangel, God’s protector for His people, and an image of our guardian angel, bringing us safely across the river to the other side. Death chills the body of the Christian, but not his soul. Through the grace of Christ, we pass through the cold waters of death to emerge safely on the land promised to us on the other side.
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