Day 4, Part 1:

Today began with a long drive south, from Nazareth down along the Jordan river, through the valley of Jordan, and stopping in Jericho.  Jericho is in the desert, and the difference in landscape and lifestyle throughout the drive was striking.  Northern Israel is fairly green in this rainy season, but as we drove south, the land became more hilly, rocky, and dry.  We saw more agriculture as we entered warmer climate, people working the fields, and herdsmen driving flocks of sheep and herds of cattle through the hills, usually on donkeys with the help of herding dogs.  Most residents in this area aren’t Israeli, with the exception of about 120 Jewish settlements.  Thirty-three percent are Palestinian, and the rest are Arabs.

 

We descended into the Jordan valley, which is 1400 feet below sea level, alongside Samaria, to Jericho where we visited the monastery of St Gerasimos.  This was the stopping place for Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, and James the brother of the Lord on their flight to Egypt.  There was an underground cave church built on the place where they slept, and above, a larger church with beautiful mosaic floors, Western-style icons, and many relics of saints.  The Abbot, Father Chrysostomos, gave us blessed candles to light at the Holy Sepulchre when we visit there, and saw us off by throwing flower petals at our bus.

The priest who met us at St Gerasimos is Father Leontios, a monk from Athens originally, who has lived in Israel for 20 years.  He stayed with us for the rest of today and will be with us tomorrow as well, acting as an extra tour guide – an extremely knowledgeable one! 
Next we traveled to the baptismal site of Christ, at the Jordan River.  Fr Panagiotis, Fr Leontios, and Dn Ted performed a blessing of the waters service by the bank, and sprinkled us all with the water.  Most of our group at least got our feet wet, and several went all the way in the water!   Uncharacteristically, it was chilly and rainy, so going in the water required commitment! 
We will return here tomorrow for the Patriarchal blessing of the waters, and it will be MUCH busier!  It was very special to have a nearly private time at this holy river.  
Our next stop was quite memorable.  We took the bus to a souvenir shop at the foot of the Mount of Temptation, where Christ went immediately after His baptism.  There Christ fasted for 40 days, and Satan tempted Him three times as He prayed.  There is a monastery built into the side of the mountain, and we loaded into vans to drive halfway up, then walked about 100 stone steps the rest of the way.  The monastery uses natural caves, and has a church dedicated to the Annunciation at the end of the long hallway of monk’s residences (cells).  We were able to take small stones from the mountain home with us.  Fr Panagiotis chanted the gospel for us, and Fr Leontios told us a little about the monastery – in an alcove upstairs in the church, there is the rock we believe Jesus sat on to pray during his fasting period on the mountain.  This place had a powerful presence, and many of us were deeply touched by simply being in the church.  
The next stop was the church of St Elisha, who was a student of the Prophet Elijah.  He purified the once-toxic water in the City of Jericho with salt, and is a patron saint of the city.  His church also houses the tree of St Zacchaios, the tax collector who climbed up a sycamore tree to see the Lord.  St Zacchaios later became bishop of Caesarea, and there was a stunning icon of him in his vestments, which is very rarely seen.  (This was particularly meaningful to me since my youngest son is named Zacchaios!). The church also had a beautiful icon of the Annunciation that clearly depicted the well of water, which we visited a few days ago.  The abbot of the monastery gave us a warm welcome, and many of us gave lists of names to be added to their prayer lists there.