If you’ve ever thought about having a polar bear experience, this may be your lucky day! It’s Russian Orthodox Epiphany!
January 19th for Russian Orthodox Christians is Epiphany or Theophany, which commemorates the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Note that this is the adult Jesus and John the Baptist, not the toddlers in “The Virgin of the Rocks.” This is a common misunderstanding since Epiphany comes so close to Christmas, many people think it is all about Baby Jesus getting baptized. This would have been a huge waste of time since both Jesus and the Virgin Mary were born without original sin. If you are scratching your head thinking, “surely we had that already,” remember that the Orthodox or Julian calendar lags 13 days behind the Western or Gregorian Calendar.
Epiphany or Theophany means literally “holy light” and signifies divine revelation. Just after he was baptized, the Gospels relate that Jesus heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my well-beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus then immediately took off for his time in the wilderness, following the well-trodden path of his Old Testament ancestors: Moses after the burning bush, and Abraham after the three angels.
Get Your Kit Off and Into Some Freezing Water
In Orthodox countries, the celebration of Epiphany usually centers around some kind of interaction with water. In Russia, where suffering is the dernier cri, the hardcore types celebrate Epiphany with total bodily immersion into river water, which is accessed via a large crucifix-shaped hole drilled out the ice. At midnight.
Surely not, I hear you cry.
Check out this compelling photograph taken by British photographer, Henrietta Challinor, entitled “Epiphany II Serebryanni Bor.”
The Baptism of Christ reminds me of hands-down one of the top ten funniest things that ever happened to me while traveling. It gets a full description in Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martini’s and Mayhem in Moscow, but I thought I would include it in this post since it fits right in with today’s holiday:
For my fortieth birthday, HRH allowed me to choose the annual May holiday destination, and I chose Jordan, somewhat to his dismay. HRH’s idea of a good holiday is to find a beach with an adjacent bar and divide his day between running, sleeping, and consuming the local beer. He eats sparingly of what is fresh and falls into an exhausted heap at the end of the day. Thus, he re-charges his batteries. I don’t mind this kind of thing, but I also feel that there is much of the world left to see, and Jordan was high up on my list.
Velvet was all for Jordan, as soon as she saw that most of the sites could be – and in her opinion should be – explored astride either a donkey or a horse. Most 9-year-olds might find a four-day trek through Petra tedious, but not Velvet. She was in love with a spindly donkey called Abdul, who drank Coca-Cola straight from the can. We explored Petra, then exchanged the horses for camels and headed into Wadi Rum, where David Lean filmed a lot of Laurence of Arabia, and finally, like Laurence, on to Aqaba for some much-needed beach time.
It was on the way to Aqaba that we first encountered the couple. We stopped at an observation platform overlooking a Crusaders’ Castle, with complimentary toilet facilities and obligatory oversized portraits of King Abdullah and Queen Rania. As our guide explained the history of the Crusaders in Jordan, which I found interesting, and HRH and Velvet (well trained by me to be nice to tour guides) were listening to politely enough, our attention was diverted by a couple instructing their guide in broken English how to use a complicated digital camera. There, literally in the middle of nowhere, we were confronted with Homo Novus Russicanus.
New Russians are the latest incarnation of Slavs on the move, fueled by Petrodollars, anxious to experience all that the world has to offer – and Bistro Bistro Bistro! Cost is not a primary concern to these garishly clad Buccaneers, who make high-end hoteliers and luxury goods retailers from Mayfair to Rodeo Drive lick their lips in anticipation. New Russians travel in high season, which to some extent they have re-defined for the industry, paying top ruble for the best suites. They spend huge sums at the hotel’s restaurants and outlets. They lease chauffer-driven Bentleys to take them three blocks and then wait for them. They pay the hotel to send all manner of things, animal, vegetable AND mineral up via room service and don’t blink when they get the five-figure bill at the end of 3 days.
This couple looked to be on the lower end of this high-end species – possibly regional, rather than Muscovite, but with all the trappings. The man was right out of Central Casting: stocky, balding, intense turquoise blue eyes, which exactly matched his wife’s finger and toenail polish. Jordan is pretty tolerant as Muslim countries go, but the wife seemed prepared to push that tolerance to the limit: she wore a sheer pearl pink silky tunic over a lacy black bra that left little of her impressive cleavage to the imagination. Her skin-tight white jeans and gold lame sandals did not, to me, seem the ideal trekking through Wadi Rum ensemble. I idly wondered how on earth she would have mounted a camel, as she struck a red-carpet pose, pouted prettily, against the backdrop of the oversized portrait of Queen Rania (which no woman in her right mind would ever do, because, even if you are Angelina Jolie, the contrast is impossible.) But that’s a New Russian for you — lots of expensive camera equipment, which they use exclusively to take pictures of themselves in front of famous monuments – never just the monuments, and it is the most tedious thing in the entire world. I once went to the Himalayas with my Moscow book club, and while I went around trying to capture artistic shots of tortured-looking Tibetan pilgrims at a temple, our Russian members hammed it up in front of every fire hydrant they could find and spent the whole time snapping each other.
“Oh wow,” I said, “Do you think they are on the way to Aqaba as well?”
They were, and as luck would have it, they showed up at our hotel, where we were somewhat thrown onto the same side of the beach when a group of Saudi women arrived, swathed from head to toe in black abayas, with a passel of children. The women took one look at Blue Fingernails (as I then thought of her, and still do today) and scurried as far away as they could. Velvet, on the other hand, was riveted. Blue Fingernails had a blue bikini exactly the color of her nail polish, and a blue dragon tattooed at just the place where her spine ended and somewhat below where her bikini started. The dragon was breathing fire due South.
Blue Fingernails pulled a dog-eared Russian-language Harlequin Romance from her beach bag and settled herself on a lounge chair. She flagged a passing waiter and ordered a coke without ice. As the waiter turned to attend other patrons, we caught sight of Blue Fingernails, in a swift, and clearly practiced gesture, pull a fifth of Canadian Club out of her bag, add a hefty tote to the Coke and, in a flash, deep-sixed the bottle back into her bag.
It was 10:30 am.
Blue Fingernails was soon joined by her husband, whom I instantly christened “Pectoral Cross” because his poolside ensemble consisted of the Russian swimsuit of choice: a teeny tiny Speedo, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination, and which I have happily convinced HRH is not suitable beach attire. On his feet, he wore black male Biggest Loser flip-flops, and not a blessed thing else except a massive gold cross hung around his thick neck with a heavy chain, featuring a highly Baroque treatment of Jesus Christ – also adorned in a teeny tiny Speedo – in the throes of his final agonies at Calvary. It was the size of my outstretched palm and was the largest piece of religious jewelry I’d ever seen on a member of the laity. I was fascinated, and so was Velvet – as he lay down next to Blue Fingernails, and turned his face up to the heavens for some sun worship. I wondered what kind of a tan line the cross created. Did he, I mused, carefully replace it in one established slot at each session to ensure a crisp line? Russians, including HRH, believe that the sun contains vital nutrients and vitamins, so they never use SPF of any level, and I could tell from their ruddy complexions that it was clear that Blue Fingernails and Pectoral Cross had spent several weeks cultivating the Vitamin D.
Velvet has inherited her endless fascination with people watching from me. HRH doesn’t care for the pastime – he’s never fascinated by the latest gossip, and remains frustratingly indifferent when I greet him with, “You will NOT believe what X just told me about Y.” So, it is probably just as well he missed the main Pectoral Cross and Blue Fingernails event, and who knows, had he still been with us, we might have missed it entirely.
After our respite in Aqaba, HRH flew back a day early to Moscow, leaving Velvet and me to finish up our holiday at the Dead Sea. As soon as we packed him off to the airport, I moved forward with my intention to re-visit the Queen Noor furniture workshop, where I had earmarked some beautiful inlaid wood chairs. HRH had dismissed the idea of having them shipped to Moscow, which the Jordanians assured me was the smallest of troubles, on the grounds that Customs on the Russian side would be a mess. I thought they were just what our new apartment needed, and figured it would be easy to present HRH with a fait accompli.
Fate handed us a chatty Jordanian driver who thoroughly approved of our plan to buy the furniture, for which he garnered the traditional kickback. He discovered that we had not done much of the Biblical sightseeing around Madaba, and insisted he take us to the Baptism of Christ site. Well worth the trip, he advised.
HRH’s mother is dead religious, and we thought we might pick up something meaningful for her at the inevitable gift shop. I was intrigued to see the Jordan River, so we agreed, thinking it would be what I call a “quick stop/photo opp/potty hop/must shop” kind of visit. I should have known better – I who had led tour groups in the footsteps of St. Paul — anything to do with the life of Jesus Christ is expensive, uphill, ecumenical and crowded, and the Baptism of Christ Center was all of those things. It was also multi-lingual. We were placed in a group with a couple from Seattle who had arrived the night before, who wanted to pick our brains about Petra; two Albanian nuns who spoke not one word, and, low and behold! Blue Fingernails and Pectoral Cross.
Blue Fingernails seemed dressed more demurely – she had on a top that had sleeves, over a long pair of jeans. She carried a plastic laundry bag purloined from the Aqaba Kempinski that clanked – did I detect the outline of the bottle of Canadian Club? She also had a weird kind of kerchief on her head – way too flimsy to provide any real protection from the sun, and not in keeping with her usual wardrobe choices. Pectoral Cross was wearing jeans and a close-fitting T-shirt made of a very shiny black material, against which the cross glistened and shone in the Middle Eastern glare, making the Jesus figure dance about, as if actually writhing in pain. We smiled the awkward smile of people who have been traveling in tandem but not actually met, and headed off behind our guide, who split his commentary between Russian and English.
The Baptism Site covered a lot of ground – just like St. Paul — and most of it was downhill towards the riverbed — along a slippery set of stone staircases that wound around in the shade of massive and very unnatural plantings. As we picked our way down, the guide drew out attention to the right of the path to a small stone platform some 25 feet below. This, he explained was where Jesus had stopped to pray before being baptized.
“I go down there to pray,” said Pectoral Cross in a matter-of-fact kind of way.
Heavens, I thought. Was this a sort of one-up-manship of the Son of Man? I looked again at Blue Fingernails’ weird kerchief and realized in a flash that — fancy Nikon, Canadian Club and the Harlequin Romance aside — Blue Fingernails and Pectoral Cross were in Jordan for purely religious reasons! The kerchief was spiritual headgear – like any good Orthodox Christian woman, Blue Fingernails was covering her head to visit a sight of religious significance. I listened hard to the exchange between the guide and Pectoral Cross.
“It is not permitted to descend,” said the guide, in a weary manner, that suggested that Pectoral Cross was not the first person he’d encountered who wanted to literally Walk In The Way of The Lord.
Pectoral Cross gave the guide a very Eastern European smirk which basically communicates the following: “Listen you inferior brown towel head, I know that you know that I know this is a rule, but you know that I know that you will look the other way because you know that I know that if you do look the other way, I will tip you enormously when – and only when – this thing that want that you know and I know is against the rules – is accomplished to my satisfaction.”
“What’s going on?” asked the girl from Seattle, leaning over to tighten the toggles of her KEEN trekking sandals.
“He wants to pray down there,” said Velvet, helpfully, as calmly as if she were announcing that he wanted to make a potty stop.
“Really?” asked the guy from Seattle, in wonderment. No doubt sharing our initial impression that Pectoral Cross didn’t seem the type.
“It seems so,” I said, and we all leaned over the railing to watch the drama unfold.
The Albanian nuns crossed themselves, the Jordanian guide looked around surreptitiously while Blue Fingernails handed Pectoral Cross the Aqaba Kempinski bag, and Pectoral Cross scurried down the slope to the stone platform where he knelt, drew a small church candle in a glass holder from the laundry bag and tugged a gold ZIPPO lighter out of his back pocket. He lit the candle, carefully returned the ZIPPO, then crossed himself using three fingers in the Ultra-Orthodox manner and intoned prayers we couldn’t hear.
I took a swig of tepid mineral water and handed the bottle to Velvet. Time passed. From somewhere nearby, a muezzin crackled and then moaned out
“Allllllaaaaaahhhhhhhhh Akbarrrrrrrrrrrrrr” — God is great — calling for the Muslim noonday prayers. Pectoral Cross finally lifted his head, extinguished the candle, hiked himself up the slope and rejoined the party without a word. We continued on.
Our next stop, the guide informed us, casting nervous looks at Pectoral Cross, was the site at which Jesus disrobed prior to getting baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan. There was a little grotto just to the side of the path. Without a word, Blue Fingernails handed Pectoral Cross the Aqaba Kempinski laundry bag and he went into the grotto. The Albanian nuns crossed themselves again. The Seattle couple looked on with growing fascination, as Pectoral Cross, once again down on his knees, re-lit the candle with the gold ZIPPO, and then removed the shiny skin-tight black T-shirt, carefully re-adjusted the Savoir of Mankind on his hairless chest (did he wax, I wondered) and crossed himself a few more times. Rising, he placed the folded T-shirt into the laundry bag, and, shirtless, without even a hint of SPF, re-joined the party.
We continued downhill along the shady walkway until it abruptly stopped and we were once again in the bright sunshine. To our left was a gaudy Russian Orthodox Church that looked as if it had been completed last week (it had) and beyond it, the River Jordan.
I don’t know what you think of when you think of the River Jordan, if indeed, you think about it at all, but my image had always been of a wide, majestic sort of waterway, with a slow, but steady, stately current — nothing so unbridled or inelegant as a torrent or anything, but commanding. If I’d thought about the color at all, I think I would have assigned it a blue in the marine hues, with subtle hints of green, flecked with the occasional silver highlight of foam. As to the depth, wasn’t there a song that went something like “Jordan’s river, is deep and wide?” Or was it “chilly and wide?” I did, however, imagine a shallow end, possibly with convenient steps leading into it, for Jesus to kneel in while John dipped a gourd-like thing into the river and poured the crystal clear water droplets over Jesus’ head. That’s sort of the idea I had of the Jordan River.
People who believe climate change is a bunch of hooey should really visit the Baptism of Christ site because that’s all you really need to see to convince you it’s real. Time, you get the sense, has taken its toll. You can see where the River Jordan might have been both deep and wide, and possibly somewhat chilly, but today it is a putty-grey silt bed, baking in the sun. At the bottom of the riverbed is a 5 or 6-foot wide trough of cloudy scummy dishwater. It’s just sort of lying there, stagnant. It pongs. A lot.
The thing about traveling in the Arab parts of Middle East is that you totally forget about Israel. They make it easy, but there, on the opposite side of the hugely disappointing River Jordan was a whole bunch of barbed wire, taking itself very seriously indeed. Some forty oversized Israeli flags, flapping insolently in the breeze, left nothing to the imagination. There it was – Israel. You could reach out your hand if you dared, and you’d almost be there. At regular checkpoints, impossibly good-looking Israeli soldiers, both men, and women, in pristine military garb and mirrored sunglasses, stood to attention, semi-automatic weapons raised skyward, their unblinking gazes trained on the opposite bank: the site of the Baptism of Christ.
Pectoral Cross wasted no time. He eased off his lizard-skin loafers. Then unbuckled his belt.
“Oh my God,” said the girl from Seattle, “You don’t think he’s going in…”
“Mommy, can I –“ started Velvet.
“Don’t even think about it.” I said.
The Jordanian guide shook his head, started to intervene, clocked the Israeli soldiers who were fingering the triggers of their semi-automatics, thought better of it, and slowly backed away, motioning us to come with him. Blue Fingernails now seemed to be all purpose and action. She adjusted her kerchief, and stood like a handmaiden, accepting the large chunky Rolex Pectoral Cross carefully removed from his wrist. She waited patiently while he eased off his jeans, revealing the teeny tiny Speedo.
“Jesus Christ, I hope that guy has had a tetanus shot,” breathed the guy from Seattle, as Pectoral Cross strode purposefully, without any hesitation, into the cloudy rank River Jordan.
An Israeli guard yelled something in Hebrew and made a shooing gesture with his hand. We watched, rooted to the spot, while Pectoral Cross submerged himself completely into the rank, stagnant, cloudy dishwater of the River Jordan, not once, but thrice. He then rose, resplendent in his teeny tiny Speedo and his cross, both covered with a fine film of gray silt, and his new sense of righteousness. Cleansed of his sin, whatever it was (and I imagined it was epic that sin), he languidly strode out of the silt bed of the River Jordan and joined Blue Fingernails, who had been busy shaking out a white silk shirt, fresh from the Aqaba Kempinski’s overnight dry cleaning service.
Solemnly, Pectoral Cross donned the shirt, then, less solemnly he struggled to get his tight jeans back on over his silty wet legs. Blue Fingernails took the empty Canadian Club bottle and filled it up with opaque water from the River Jordan, oblivious to the Israelis, now grouped together, using a megaphone to express their desire that we get as far away from the River Jordan as possible. And so, even though it was uphill all the way, we bid a hasty retreat.
Photo credit: Henrietta Challinor. All Rights Reserved.
Henrietta Challinor lived and worked in Moscow for a number of years, exploring themes of Russian life. You can see more of her work at her website: HFC Photography.
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