“This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” John 1:28
I thought the “Bethany” in this passage is a religious vocabulary needless of my attention. Since high school, I have grown too familiar with the “Bethany” of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus that St. Matthew had recorded, about 2 miles from the city of Jerusalem and by the slopes of Mt. Olives. Besides, the “Bethany” in this passage fades almost insignificantly as it closes this Sunday’s gospel, like the water of Jordan flowing in a too-familiar silence into the Dead Sea. Such insignificance often rubs with the human tendency to be wide-eyed by the high middle drama of any story, including the Christmas Story…especially the Christmas Story, and in this case, unquestionably, the story of John the Baptist, his humility.
But true to its end-of-the-passage slippage, “Bethany across the Jordan” is actually non-existent a name of the place according to biblical scholarship and archaeology. It has no Hebrew root. Instead, scholars propose other names and possibilities that somehow will jibe with other historical data – Batanea, Bethabara, Bethanabra, Batneh, et-Tell, etc. But,
“Bethany across the Jordan has shared the fate of many other Biblical sites which have disappeared from the earth.”
Archaeological data strongly points to this conclusion, however – it was a site accessible to the residents of Judea and Jerusalem. There is also substantive evidence that it is east of the Jordan river, much closer to the wilderness or desert of Judea, and the tradition of Jesus’ baptism on the west bank was introduced only after the Arab conquest (A.D. 640) and because “the desert east of the Jordan was becoming more and more unfriendly.” One thing seems convincing – that the way to the wilderness was via this “Bethany across the Jordan” and it was to this “Bethany across the Jordan” that John the Baptist would break his silence, engage in ministry, respond to the curious, preach the baptism of repentance. Baptize. Claim he was neither Elijah nor the Christ. If the desert of Judea was his womb of silence, the advent of his waiting for his voice to come out, “Bethany across the Jordan” was the marketplace of desert silence-made-flesh. Any desert silence is loaded it cannot help but break into effulgent generosity. Speak. Humble oneself before the Mystery. Become His servant.
Year after year, the humility of John has always been the centerpiece of Gaudete Sunday’s homilies and there is a greater likelihood that people have become too familiar about it to switch off its significance, the way Christmas has become commodified. The problem it seems is not in its repetition. The problem is how to get there by way of solitude and “desert” silence, themes often skipped over in churches in the name of togetherness or uncritical conformity. The world has become noisier each Christmas because the silence of Advent has always been drowned out by the hunger for the glamorous, the middle high drama of the story, the glittery rather than by the anonymity of the ‘Bethany beyond the Jordan.” People are moving away and away into the “west bank of Jordan” because silence, the emptiness and darkness of the desert admittedly can be too demanding. Fearsome for wealthy and powerful institutions. Deserts can strip and bare the human soul naked. But the insignificance of the little village of “Bethany beyond the Jordan” became significant only for John from the vantage point of the Judean desert.
“The voiceless world is so empty, so giving, that it can be all things to all people, invisible yet visibly full of life’s many blessings.”
John the Baptist: man of the desert and of “Bethany across the Jordan,” silence and word, solitude and community. Blessed and blessing.
God of the ordinary and the insignificant,
teach me the ways of desert silence,
that i may move in the marketplace,
always ready to disappear,
that You become more visible. Amen.
J. Carl Laney. Selected Geographical Problems in the Life of Christ. (Ph.D Diss., Dallas Theological Seminary)
Bruce Davis. Monastery Without Walls.
Photo credit: wdtprs