Fire On Earth
On the day of Pentecost, Jerusalem became inundated with thousands of pilgrims who were carrying bundles of their first produce of wheat and barley to be offered in the Temple of God of Israel and to celebrate, as in all summers, the feast of the new harvest… People and camels, the entire caravans from Judea and Galilee were squeezing hard on each other in all the streets of the city of David. This is not to exclude the foreigners from all the provinces of the empire:
Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia and even from far away Egypt and the Libyan colonies of Cyrene…. Greeks and Romans, Arabs and Cretans (Cretes), Jews and Pagans… everyone ascended to Jerusalem and their voices and songs in a thousand different languages resounded within the walls of the city….
That day, at the first hour of the morning while we were chatting in the upper story of his house, Mark, who was Peter’s friend, arrived; he was almost out of breath…
Mark: Hey, is everybody here?… C’mon here, and hurry!…
Peter: What the hell is the matter, Mark? C’mon, speak up, man!
Mark: Bad news, folks. The fat man, Caiphas, and his gang from the Sanhedrin are as mad as hell! It’s because of us!
Peter: Bah, if that’s the case…!
Mark: They found out you’ve been in the city for a couple of days now and you’ve been spreading the word that Jesus has resurrected. They say you’re out to stir up the people…
Peter: Let them say what they want, Mark…. We couldn’t care less.
Mark: The guards were given orders to arrest you…!
Peter: That doesn’t matter…
Mark: They’re coming anytime from now to get you…!
Peter: Well… in that case, it does matter! Matthew, Andrew, Nathanael, friends, we’ve got to leave this place! They’re after our necks!
John: So let them find us! We’ll wait for them here, Peter!
Peter: Okay, you’ll wait for them, John. I’m leaving.
Philip: So am I.
John: Cowards! That’s what you are, a bunch of terrified rats!
Peter: That’s okay, say whatever you want… But I prefer to be a living rat to a dead lion. Let’s go… just tell the women we’re leaving!
Mary: What noise is this? What’s going on here, tell me…?
Peter: Nothing, Mary, but something’s gonna happen soon…
Thomas: Mark, are you s…s…sure about the g…g…uards?
Mark: Of course, Thomas. Nicomedes told me.
Peter: What Nicomedes? Nicodemus, perhaps?
Mark: Oh, it’s the same. It’s this tension that gets me all mixed up. Yeah, the magistrate who is our friend.
John: That story could have been made up to scare all of us.
Thomas: And i…i…indeed w…w…we are… s…scared.
Peter: Whatever it is, we’re leaving right away before they catch us empty-handed…. Come, Mary, do something… Mary!…. What’re you thinking of?
Mary: I was just wondering what Jesus would do if he were with us.
Philip: I know what he would do, but I…!
Magdalene: I know what the Moreno would do! Jesus never backtracks… The problem with us is we move like turtles, my goodness!
Salome: I agree with the Magdalene, because if only….
Peter: Okay, okay, whatever it is that you want to say, say it along the way! Now is not the time to talk but to leap over the wall and get away from here! Let’s go, James!
Magdalene: Go, if you wish! Mary and I are staying, is that right, Mam Mary?
Mary: But of course, woman….
Salome: In that case, I’m staying too! Blood, not water, runs in the veins of the Zebedees !
Philip: Listen to me, you fools. Don’t you know that the soldiers are coming?
Magdalene: Even if he is the king of Rome, what do I care?… Go away, go away…. We’re staying here.
Peter: Are you out of your minds?…. Why the hell are you staying behind?
Magdalene: Now look who’s talking!… Tell me, Peter, why then did we come to Jerusalem? To dance in the party? Didn’t we say we had to revolutionize the capital and gather all the poor of the city? Aren’t we supposed to point an accusing finger at those swines who have broken our bones?
Philip: Jesus started the plan and you’ve seen how soon they’ve gotten rid of him!
Magdalene: But God is more powerful, Philip! Tell me, big head, why, do you think, did God raise Jesus from the dead? That he might merit an applause?… Or was it because we had to continue fighting like he did, and that we should not be afraid to face death?
Salome: Well said, Magdalene! They should have given you the sword of Judith, young woman!
Peter: Okay, okay, let’s discuss this part by part…. What do you propose to do, scandalous women?
Salome: At the moment, we should play it cool, Peter. Let’s not allow this fear to knock us all down.
Peter: And you, Mary, what do you say?
All of us turned to Jesus’ mother…
Mary: I don’t know, Peter, when things got tough, Jesus would tell us to pray a little, remember?… Why don’t we ask God to enlighten us that we may know what to do or what not to do…?
Salome: Exactly, Mary: If we cling to the Lord, we will never slip.
Mary: Let’s ask God to lead us through, as our ancestors were led out of Egypt. They too, were terrified when the Pharaoh’s guards chased them and cornered them beside the sea…. But remember, it was then when God blew hard and split the sea in the middle to give passageway to our ancestors…
All eleven of us were present. Mathias, Thomas’ friend, who had joined the group a few days ago, was there too, and so were the women: the Magdalene, Susana and my mother, Salome. In the middle of all was Mary, Jesus’ mother, who was in squatting position, common among the women peasants of my country….
Mary: Father!… Come before us, open us a path of freedom, like you did for our ancestors when You blew the strong wind and let them cross the Red Sea… Be on our side, like You acted by making that column of fire, paving the way for their passage…. Come, Lord… If You don’t come, Lord, then grant that we may stay here… If You are indeed on our side, then give us a little of your Spirit, the same Spirit that You put in Jesus, give us the courage of the prophets!
We prayed. We prayed from the bottom of our cowardice, with a little grain of faith before a mountain of difficulties. The God of our ancestors who saved Jesus from death, who strengthens trembling hands and firms up shaking knees, filled us with powerful Spirit…. Since that morning, God had been gradually snatching away the fear from us, and in His Time, gave us the courage we needed in our daily struggle…
Peter: Well, folks… so much for this cowardice, damn it…. I mean, I’m saying it for myself… Now, I understand why Jesus has left us, so that we would have to handle the reins ourselves…. The Moreno has put a lamp in our hands, and we’re not hiding it under the table… It must be put up in a candle holder so that everyone may see…. Do you agree?
John: Of course, Peter…. If we risk our lives the way Jesus did, well, bad luck! Others will follow…. And God will take care of claiming our blood!
Peter: So, buddies, what’re we waiting for? Didn’t you say the guards are coming? Well, let them find us in the street! What we have spoken of in the shadows, we shall proclaim under the sun!… And what we’ve been saying in whispers, we shall shout to the whole world!
Euphoric, Peter, opened the door and went down the stone stairway facing the patio, taking two steps at a time… We went behind him…. The street was crammed with a sea of pilgrims during that warm holiday…
Peter: Well… what now, John?
John: Commend yourself to Moses, who was a stutterer, that he may loosen up your tongue! Cheer up, troublemaker!
Then Peter climbed over an old barrel of oil beside the door and from there, he began to gesture to the people who were passing by….
Peter: Listen, friends, compatriots, come, run, for we’ve got some news for you!… Hey, John, where do I begin? What shall I tell them?... I’m having mental block!
John: Don’t get scared, Peter…. Words are like a swarm of bees: one comes out and a swarm follows!
A multitude started to mill around out of curiosity. Peter, who was on top of the barrel, was sweating profusely, not knowing how to begin, and looking from one side to the another, lest the guards were coming...
A Man: What’s wrong with you, you over-acting Galilean?… Let’s see, are you raffling off some stuff?
A Woman: C’mon, out with it!
Man: This guy is drunk! Don’t you see his face is flushed? Ha, ha, ha…!
Peter: No, my friends, we’re not drunk… we’re not, because it is nine o’clock in the morning and at this time of the day, not even old Noah gets himself intoxicated. It’s something else… We’ve got some news for you. The news is that the Kingdom of God has come! Yes, my friends, some of you have come from afar, and have not heard what happened in this city only a few weeks ago…. There was a man called Jesus... I guess most of you knew him, right?… Well, this Jesus of Nazareth spent his time with us, doing good deeds and fighting for justice like anybody else. He also healed the sick, because God was with him. And this man, who was more upright than a post, and more a prophet than all the prophets put together, was held prisoner by the leaders of Jerusalem. These leaders faked a trial for him by midnight and condemned him to death. Many of you have seen him hanged on the cross, is that right? Well, these swine thought that the victory was theirs. But God did not conform to this in any way. Please tell me, how could God allow such injustice of great magnitude? How could God stand the sight of worms feasting on the body of the best creature on earth? He did not allow it! No way!…. So God took him from his tomb, and raised him to life, and now he is more alive than ever, believe me!…. and God acknowledged him in the eyes of everyone. I say this to you because I have seen him alive. All of these men who are with me now have also seen him! We are witnesses to this victory of God. We are telling you, compatriots and foreigners, those from the nearby places and those from afar, without mincing our words, that God has made this Jesus whom they crucified Lord and Messiah of all men and women all over the world!
The people who were crowding around us began to applaud Peter, who was talking passionately, with such firmness, that for a moment, I remembered Jesus when he was talking right there at the Temple’s esplanade…
A Man: Hey, neighbor, who’s this big nose who just spoke to us so clearly?
A Woman: I don’t know much about him…. He must be Galilean, judging from his intonation.
Man: He must be one of the zealots, I’d say…
Old Woman: No, man, but he is one of those who was always with the prophet….
Woman: Shut up, old woman, and listen!
Peter: Friends, listen to me: The rulers and the big lords of the capital thought that the matter about Jesus is already over. Well, it’s not over yet. Do you know why? Because they are still here, those responsible for Jesus’ death: the Herods, the Caiphases, the Pilates, are all sprawled out in their palaces of marble, sitting over the prison cells where a number of our tortured countrymen are languishing; they are feasting lavishly while our people are starving to death. This will go on and on as they continue to kill and rob and abuse our people! But Jesus continues to be with us too as we confront them!…. They are alive, but Jesus is more alive than they! They mock us, the poor, but God will laugh the last because this matter about Jesus is not yet over!…. On the contrary, this is just the beginning! It’s only now that the matter is getting complicated, countrymen! Now, it’s not only one person who is involved, but a dozen… then we shall become twelve dozens! And no one will be able to stop us! The Kingdom of God spreads like a spark in dry field! And there’s no turning back, my friends!
Man: Very good, Galilean, very good, that’s the way to talk!
Woman: Give it to them, Peter, give it to them!
Peter: How did it go, John?
John: Okay, Peter, but don’t gesture too much, you might fall off the barrel…!
Mark: Hey, delinquent, there are a number of foreigners around and I don’t know if they understand….
Peter: Friends, among us here are a number of foreigners from other countries and they speak other languages. It doesn’t matter. I know everybody understands, because in spite of the differences of languages, our stomachs speak the same language of hunger! We have the same callous hands and our mothers weep the same tears for their sons who lost their lives. The clamor for justice of the poor is the same in all languages! Here no one is a stranger! We come from many different places, yes, but we all go toward the direction of the same land, and this is what matters! A new land, with no boundaries, nor inequality, a land where all of us can dwell! To achieve this, we need to be together, to join hands, work shoulder to shoulder, and inject the Spirit of God in the flesh of the people!
More and more people gathered to listen to Peter… The street became so small that when the guards sent by the high priests and the magistrates of the Sanhedrin came, they could not harm us…. That morning of the Pentecost, the ears of Jerusalem listened to the good news, known today by a great number of men and women all over the world: that Jesus is alive, that the Kingdom of God moves on, that the flame enkindled by Jesus here on earth is not extinguished, because it is God who keeps it aflame and God wants us all to be burned by it.
The Feast of Pentecost (penta = 50) is celebrated fifty days after the Passover. It is also known as the Feast of the Recollection or the Feast of the First Fruits (from “Shavuot”), since the first fruits of the harvest-taking all over the country were brought as offerings to God. It is also called the Feast of the Weeks, as this was celebrated seven weeks after the Passover. It was a feast of great rejoicing and thanksgiving on account of the new harvest. With the Passover and the Feast of the Tents, it was one of the three feasts during which the Israelites should undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. At present, the Jews continue to celebrate the “Shavuot.” Originally agricultural in character, another feast is now incorporated to it, the celebration of the Alliance of Sinai.
For the Christian Tradition, that day of the Pentecost marked the beginning of the Church as a community of brothers and sisters who are committed to continue the way of Jesus. It is also a missionary feast: in such a short time, those missionaries, inspired by the Spirit of Jesus, would spread the gospel all over the world. Undoubtedly, during those days of the feast of the First Fruits, the disciples, together, experienced with a special power the presence of the living Jesus in their midst, and they enabled a multitude of pilgrims in Jerusalem to experience the same presence. A number of authors believe that it is this experience of Pentecost that Paul is referring to, when he speaks of the manifestation of the resurrected Jesus “before an assembly of more than five hundred brothers” (1 Cor 15:6).
The Spirit of God already appears in the first lines of the Bible (Gen 1:2) hovering the waters, the source of all life. In Hebrew it is called “ruaj.” It is a word in the feminine gender which literally means “wind” and also “breath.” When God created humankind, the Bible says that He breathed into his nostrils (Gen 2:7). When God took His people out of Egypt, He blew hard on his enemies (Ex 10:13 and 19). The Spirit always appears in relation to life. It is the gentle or the tempestuous breath of God which brings life, puts in motion, defends it and enriches it. When the Spirit fails, so life fails (Ps 104:27-30). Never is it said in the Bible that God is “spirit” as opposed to “matter.” What is said is that God “has” Spirit, which is like saying that God has life, and transmits it. A life that is manifested as much in the flesh, in matter, as in feelings, in the intelligence, thoughts and creativity.
The mentality of Israel was never concerned with concepts such as “nature” or “person” in relation to the Spirit. To speak of the Spirit as that of “the third person of the only (unique) nature of God” is typical of Greek mentality, which is completely alien to Israelite mentality. What Israel was more concerned with was not with describing the Spirit, but with how the Spirit acted. What Israel discovered was that this Spirit transcends the limited powers of people and makes them a hero or a prophet in a particular moment (1 S 10:5-13) or it remains with them, as in the case of the great prophets, the leaders of the people, Moses, Elijah (2 K 2:9). It was Israel’s hope that the Spirit rest in plenitude over the Messiah, bringing peace, happiness, justice, honesty – all livings signs characterizing the Spirit. The Spirit of God is capable of creating a new person and this is what is prayed for in the old prayers of the people (Ps 51:12-14). The Spirit empowered the disciples of Jesus to continue his work, to be able to offer their lives for the sake of justice, just as he had done. It placed in the mouths of the disciples the words of Jesus, making them act in the same manner. To be a Christian today, twenty centuries after Jesus, is no more than to continue in this path, with the same inspiration, to act under this impulse, to move in accordance with his vitality, his breath. The Spirit of God touched Jesus, and it is this same Spirit, God’s power and life, that keeps alive in us, that enables us to risk our lives for others, to live in community, to share our properties and life, to pray in community, to face death with hope.
Wind as well as fire are symbols of the acts of the Spirit of God. One and the other can penetrate any space, and spread anywhere. Both have a soothing effect (the coolness of the breeze, the warmth of the fire) and a destructive effect (the devastating hurricane and the consuming fire). Both manifested the act of God in the liberation, from the Exodus: the wind blowing over the Red Sea, opening the road to freedom (Ex 14:21) and the column of fire, guiding the Israelites during their nights in the desert (Ex 13:21-22). Luke uses these symbols in narrating the intervention of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost: a strong wind that echoes through the house and the tongues of fire over the assembled community.
The account of Pentecost cites a number of foreigners present in Jerusalem that morning. They came from well-known nations then: Parthians (known for horse-training, from the kingdom of Parthia, situated in the central part of present-day Iran), Medes (from the ancient kingdom of Media, destroyed five hundred years before Jesus, situated in the north of present-day Iran), the Elamites (inhabitants from the region of Elam where one of the first cultures of the earth evolved, situated in the present border between Iran and Iraq), people from the Roman provinces of Mesopotamia (region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where the Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations were born, situated in the present-day Iraq); from Judea (southern region of Israel, where Jerusalem was situated), from Cappadocia (a mountainous region in the center of the present-day Turkey), from Pontus (a region by the bank of the Black Sea, in the northern part of Turkey), from Asia Minor, people from the regions of Phrygia (a grazing zone, where the legend of the famous King Midas originated, situated in the central part of Turkey); the inhabitants from Egypt (situated in the present-day territory), from Libya (presently situated in the north of Africa), from Cyrene (occidental zone of the present-day Libya), from Rome (capital of the Empire and now of Italy), the Cretes (from Crete, an island in Southern Greece), and the Arabs (from the ancient Nabatean kingdom, part of the present-day Jordan and Egypt), Jews – by race – as proselytes – foreigners converted to the religion of Israel – coming from these places would all travel to Jerusalem.
In his first discourse with the people of Jerusalem, Peter took over what had been the life of Jesus and which, in the beginnings of the Christian faith, constituted the essence of the gospel: Jesus was unjustly killed, God resurrected him from the dead, and the disciples became witnesses of what had happened. From the resurrection, the disciples and after them, we, the Christians, believe that the final victory shall be that of justice and life. With this assurance of our faith, we follow the same way of Jesus. His cause moves on whenever we toil for life’s sake, no matter the final consequences.