Thursday, April 25, 2024

“Aquae Sanctae Terrae”: The Spiritual Signification of the Waters of the Holy Land (Part 2)

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, 1800, by Benjamin West, (source).

“Aquae Sanctae Terrae”: The Spiritual Signification of the Waters of the Holy Land

A Seminarian from the Midwest

Part 2: The Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River

(Part 1 may be read here.)

The Sea of Galilee

The Jordan’s next stop is at the Sea of Galilee, which lies ten miles south of Lake Hula and sits nearly 1,000 feet lower at about 700 feet below sea level. The Sea of Galilee, and all the land north of the Dead Sea in the Holy Land up to the Jordan headwaters, but excluding Lake Hula, represent the earth on the spiritual map. Within this region, Christ became man to redeem the world. There are many stories within the Old and New Testament, especially at the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, which highlight God’s intervention on earth. These episodes are primarily associated with the importance of Baptism and the necessity of being part of the Church. The region is also culturally diverse despite its small size, enhancing its global character.

Beginning in the Old Testament, the first major reference to the Jordan River comes in the book of Joshua. The Israelites are finally taking the Promised Land. God commands Joshua to have priests of the tribe of Levi carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River. [20] When the priests enter the swollen Jordan with the Ark, it parts like the Red Sea, and the Israelites cross safely. Joshua then has twelve men, one from each tribe, carry twelve stones out of the river to commemorate the miraculous crossing. [21] He also has them put twelve stones into the river where the priests held the Ark. [22] The Ark of the Covenant’s presence in the Jordan is a sign of God’s power and blessing coming over the river. This event prefigures Christ’s baptism, which forever sanctified the Jordan. To this day, water taken from the Jordan River is treated as ready to use baptismal water and does not need to be exorcised or blessed like regular baptismal water.

The episode also has implications for the priesthood of the Old and New Covenant. The Levites carrying the Ark into the river represent the priests of the old covenant. The twelve men from the twelve tribes represent the Apostles and the New Covenant priesthood. The twelve stones they take from the river also represent the Apostles and are like the twelve precious foundation stones on which God will build the heavenly city in the book of the Apocalypse. [23] The twelve stones that get put into the river represent the burying of the Old Covenant priesthood, indicated by the verse, “And they are there until this present day.” [24] Once everyone has safely crossed the river, the priests lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, “And when they had all passed over, the ark also of the Lord passed over, and the priests went before the people.” [25] This image is also similar to the New Testament sacrament of baptism. Through baptism, a priest leads a soul dead from original sin, into the spiritual promised land of life with Christ.

Naaman the leper

Another Old Testament story featuring the Jordan occurs in the Fourth Book of Kings. As mentioned before, here we read about, Naaman, the leprous Syrian army commander. Desperately Seeking a cure, Naaman takes the advice of a captured Hebrew girl, and visits the prophet Elisha. Elisha tells Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times. [26] Naaman is unimpressed, but after some convincing from his retinue, he relents and does as Elisha asks. [27]Naaman is cleansed while washing, “And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a little child, and he was made clean.” [28] The connection between this story and baptism is obvious. The leprosy represents sin. The sacrament of baptism washes away every trace of sin and bestows sanctifying grace on a soul.

Now is an appropriate time to answer Naaman’s original objection. Why must he wash in the Jordan? It is not on account of the Jordan’s physical properties, but because of what the river signifies. The Jordan, flowing down from its mountainous sources, is a physical manifestation of how God’s grace flows down from Heaven to us in the valley of earth below. The Jordan is like a spiritual highway or a channel of grace. Through the sacrament of baptism, invisible and spiritual realities are joined with the visible and material world. By God’s power, men receive sanctifying grace through water. The Jordan and the waters of the Holy Land are the place where God chose to create this unique union and institute the sacrament of baptism. Looking back with New Testament eyes, it is obvious why God had Namaan wash in the Jordan. The cleansing was a prefiguration of baptism. For Naaman, however, this sign was not apparent. Naaman receives a visible and physical healing, yet he is baffled by the means. He only sees the physical reality, the Jordan, a little line on the physical map. Like everything in the Old Testament, Naaman’s story only finds its fulfillment in the New Testament. The sacrament of baptism, which Christ institutes in the New Testament, provides a spiritual and invisible healing. A healing superior to Naaman’s physical healing. Naaman’s story also shows how the Gentiles will eventually come into covenant with God. Therefore, when we look at the Jordan River on the spiritual map, we see it is not just a little line, but is also a symbol of the invisible grace that is flowing down from Heaven in the sacrament of baptism.

Nicolas Poussin, Saint John Baptizing in the River Jordan, 1630s (source)
John the Baptist and Christ

The Jordan also features prominently in the New Testament. In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist is in the desert outside Jerusalem, preaching the baptism of repentance to the Jews. It is possible that John was baptizing in the exact same place that Joshua and the Israelites crossed the Jordan River centuries earlier. Joshua crossed the Jordan opposite of Jericho which is the same area where John was baptizing. [29] One can find evidence for this theory in Matthew’s gospel. When the Pharisees and Sadducees come out to investigate what is going on, John chastises them, saying, “Ye brood of vipers, who hath showed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance.” [30] The Pharisees and Sadducees represent the rottenness of what the Jewish people have become. John, perhaps looking at the same twelve stones which Joshua removed from the river, continues, “For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” [31] These stones symbolize the Apostles and their mission of making believers of all nations. He also warns of the passing of the Old Covenant when he says, “For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire.” [32] John’s baptisms link the Old and the New Covenant. John’s baptisms were only a representation of the true effect of baptism. They were a ritual cleansing for Jews, which represented the cleansing of sins. John himself says, “I indeed baptize you in water unto penance, but he that shall come after me, is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear; he shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire.” [33] It is the baptism of the New Covenant therefore, which will be truly efficacious and wipe out sins.

It is in this context that Christ also comes to John to receive baptism. Since Christ was sinless, He was not coming to be figuratively cleansed of sins. The Catechism of Trent, citing Saint Augustine, argues that Christ received baptism in order to institute it as a sacrament. [34] Saint Augustine writes, “From the moment that Christ is immersed in water, water washes away all sins” and, “The Lord is baptized, not because He had need to be cleansed, but in order that, by the contact of His pure flesh, He might purify the waters and impart to them the power of cleansing.” [35] Christ’s submerging under water also signifies the time He would spend in the tomb between His death and resurrection. Likewise, when men are baptized, there is also an element of death, burial, and resurrection present. The old man, dead to sin, is buried; and the new man, alive in Christ, rises. This new life in Christ is symbolized by a shining white garment which the Church gives to the newly baptized man.

Mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (source)
Calling of the disciples

After Christ’s baptism, he retires into Galilee. [36] In Christ’s time, the region around the Sea of Galilee was a cross section of the major cultures of the world. Greeks, Romans, and Jews all lived in the region. Travelers from all over the world also passed through Galilee on the Via Maris, a Roman highway connecting the Nile Delta with Damascus. [37] This cultural mishmash is reflected by the names of the different cities and villages found around the Sea of Galilee. There are the Greek names of the Decapolis district (on the southeast shore of the sea) including, Philadelphia, Hippos, and Pella. There are the Latin names of Caesarea Philippi and Tiberias. And of course there are the Hebrew names such as, Chorazin, Capharnaum, Tabgha, and Magdala. The sea itself also goes by different names. In the Old Testament it is called, the Sea of Chinneroth, Kinerot, or Kineret (Hebrew). Saint Luke gives it the Hellenized name, Lake Gennesaret (Lk 5:1). Matthew and Mark refer to it as the Sea of Galilee (Hebrew), naming if after the district it is in. John calls it both the Sea of Galilee and the Sea of Tiberias (Latin).

In Mark’s gospel, we read of Christ famously calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be His Apostles while they are fishing. When viewing the Sea of Galilee as a symbol of the earth or the world, the calling gains added significance. In addition to Christ’s words indicating their new vocation, “Come after to me, and I will make you to become fishers of men”, there is also the physical element of Christ calling His first priests to step away from the noise and distractions of the world so they can devote themselves to serving and being with Him. [38]

Perhaps the most famous incident at the Sea of Galilee is the storm at sea depicted in Mark 4 and Matthew 8. Christ is asleep in the boat while His Apostles battle the storm. The boat, the barque of Peter, represents the Church. The stormy sea represents the dangers of the world. Saint Peter Chrysologus gives his vivid interpretation of the scene:

When Christ embarked, in the boat of His Church, to cross the sea of the world, the blasts of the Gentiles, the whirlwinds of the Jews, the tempests of persecutors, the storm clouds of the mob, and the foggy mists of the devils all descended in a fury to make one storm over all the world. [39]

The Apostles, in the midst of their peril, wake our Lord. Christ rises and rebukes the wind and sea. Through this rebuke, Jesus proves He is the master of the world. Evil has no real power. It is only permitted by God to serve some greater purpose. In this passage, Christ uses the storm to test the faith of the Apostles and manifest His power.

Our Lord and Saint Peter’s night time walk on the sea, recounted in Matthew 14, is another classic story. At first, Peter confidently walks out to Christ, but then he sinks into the water. Our Lord quickly comes to the rescue, and gently chides Peter, “O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?” [40] This story teaches us that like Peter, we too can rise above the world and master its perils if we keep our focus on Christ; but when we take our eyes off of Christ, we will sink back into the mire of the world just as Peter did. Jesus, however, is always ready to save us when we call on Him.

Circle of Tintoretto (Lambert Sustris?), Christ at the Sea of Galilee, c. 1570s (source)
Resurrection appearance

The last great event to happen at the Sea of Galilee occurs in John’s gospel after the resurrection. Seven of the Apostles are out fishing on the sea. They have had a bad night, managing to catch no fish. Their fortunes change, however, as night turns to day, and Christ appears on the shore. Our Lord commands them to drop their nets on the right side of the boat. The apostles do as He asks, and immediately their nets are filled with 153 fish. Once they have landed this miraculous catch, John realizes that it is Jesus who is on the beach, and says to Peter, “It is the Lord.” [41] Peter then puts on his tunic, for he was naked (Jh 21:7), and swims to meet Christ on the shore. The rest of the Apostles follow by boat with the miraculous catch. On the beach, Peter proves his three-fold love for Christ, redeeming his three denials. This whole event is rich in meaning and merits unpacking.

The first point of interest is that the Apostles have returned to their old way of life. There is nothing inherently wrong with fishing, but Christ called the Apostles away from this profession for a higher purpose which they seem to have forgotten. Their work is not blessed by God, indicated by the empty night of fishing. Christ, however, brings the morning rays of sun and grace with Him. He tells the Apostles to try dropping their nets on the right side of the boat. When they do so, they catch 153 fish. Our Lord is reminding them of their true vocation, which is to be fishers of men.

Saint Jerome believed the number 153 was significant because that was the number of known fish species at the time. [42] The fish represent all the nations of the world that the Apostles are called to baptize. This idea also aligns with the verse in Matthew which reads, “Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a net cast into the sea, and gathering together all kinds of fishes.” [43] Casting the net on the right side indicates the way of salvation, while the left side indicates the way of damnation. [44] When Peter hears that it is Christ on the beach, he puts on his tunic and swims to meet him. This is another image for baptism. By the submersion in water at baptism, a man is purified and prepared to receive Christ. He then receives a white garment to show that He has been clothed by Christ. Both the submersion and the garment are present in this story (Jh 21:7). This is also an undoing of the incident in Genesis where Adam and Eve, unlike Peter, hide from God in the garden because they are ashamed of their nakedness. [45]

All these stories of the Old and New Testaments provide evidence for how the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee are symbols for the world. The events that take place at these bodies of water are also usually associated with images of baptism and the Church, which is fitting because these are the means which aid us on earth in our quest for Heaven.


[20] Joshua 3:3

[21] Joshua 4:8

[22] Joshua 4:9

[23] Apocalypse 21:19-20

[24] Joshua 4:9

[25] Joshua4:12

[26] 4 Kings 5:10

[27] 4 Kings 5:11-14

[28] 4 Kings 5:14

[29] Joshua 4:13

[30] Matthew 3:7-8

[31] Matthew 3:9

[32] Matthew 3:10

[33] Matthew 3:11

[34] The Catechism of the Council of Trent, (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2017), 179.

[35] The Catechism of the Council of Trent, 179.

[36] Matthew 4:12-13

[37] Rev. Bargil Pixner, Paths of the Messiah, trans. Keith Myrick, Sam Randall, and Miriam Randal, ed. Ranier Riesner, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1991), 55.

[38] Mark 1:17

[39] Saint Peter Chrysologus, Fathers of the Church: Saint Peter Chrysologus Selected Sermons and Saint Valerian Homilies, Vol.17, trans. George E. Ganss, S.J. (New York, NY: Father of the Church, Inc., 1953), 62.

[40] Matthew 14:31

[41] John 21:7

[42] George R. Beasley-Murray, World Biblical Commentary: John, Vol. 36, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 401-402.

[43] Matthew 13:47

[44] Matthew 25:34, 25:41

[45] Genesis 3:10

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