As Much for the Pyromaniacs

Design by Karela Palazio

Today and Everyday by Lucy Santiago (MC ’24) is a bimonthly column about faith and ritual. 

This is no kind of church. There are no stiff floral arrangements or recently starched shirts. No aging deacon creaks a never-ending homily into a microphone. Here, a roundish man pokes at a bonfire anxiously, penned in by orange mesh fencing. There is sausage grease on my shirt and dirt all over my pants. Any minute now, a teenager will smash a forty-ounce beer bottle over the neighbor’s stoop. This is no kind of church, but God is here. Presiding over it all is a resin figurine of a haloed young man, his white hand raised as if in command to the revelers. It is the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, La Fiesta de San Juan Bautista.

Ivan, the stout, nervous man tending the fire, has done this his whole life. His father tended the fires of San Juan before him, and this is Ivan’s first Fiesta de San Juan without him. As he says this to the people milling about, his eyes linger on the statuette of Saint John. All night, he paces the sandy ground surrounding the fire, leaning on his rake and waiting. The wood burns slowly, until the coals underneath are plentiful and red-hot. When they are ready, Ivan will pounce.

This neighborhood in a rural city of northern Argentina, named for Saint John, is known for its festivities. While Ivan readies the most important fire of the night, others burn, too. Revelers light torches throughout the neighborhood, and boys set gasoline-soaked balls of old clothes aflame to kick them through the crowds. The pièce de résistance? At midnight, a man will run down the street, wearing a giant bull’s head mask that flames from both horns and nostrils.

Really, the fire has little to do with Saint John. It’s just a carryover from Pagan midsummer rituals. In life, Saint John was devout and fervent. His modern association with fire is ironic, given that his major act has to do with water. John was one of the first to baptize early Christians in preparation for the coming of Jesus. This is the key phrase when it comes to John: “in preparation for the coming of Jesus.” John was a prophet, wandering through the badlands of Jordan with “[t]he voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And John was powerful. When his followers are surprised by this, Jesus says, a little tongue-in-cheek, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?”

All of this to say: the pious prophet of Biblical times seems to have little to do with the resin figurine watching drunken teens kick around fireballs. This is, in my mind, about as hedonistic as it gets, and at first it baffles me that this can be called a religious festival. But at its core, I don’t think they are so different after all. Faith is what happens when we trust in the tensions that make up our life, and irreverence and veneration are two sides of the same coin.  

For centuries, philosophers have attempted to justify belief in a god. And Christianity doesn’t make it easy. There was a God, who was fully a god, and he had a son who was fully divine and fully human and fully Him. And that son worked miracles, and then He died, and then He lived again. Kierkegaard is braver than me, because I would not ever try to apply logic to this canon. To me, the crux of faith is that it cannot be reasoned with. To have faith is to face uncertainty and choose belief.

More than the belief in the teachings of a religion, though, faith is the belief in an undivided, whole life. Faith asks us to make room for everything: the good and the bad, the young and the old, the trusting and the doubtful. This is a task much more difficult than it seems. How do we have faith in the bad, the old, the doubtful? We are asked to believe in the worst parts of life the same way we believe in the best. It doesn’t make sense.

But then, what about life does make sense? We fall in love and then we lose it. We are born and then we die. Nothing makes less sense than that, yet life is not fruitless. We aren’t here for the endpoints, we’re here for the middle. Why should faith be different? At its best, faith is a handbook for living a good life. It is as much for the middle as the beginning and the end. As much for the pyromaniacs as the pious. 

Ivan’s fire is hot now. He has raked the coals into a path about six feet long (maybe this is the straight path John prepared for Jesus.) The men dry their bare feet in the sand. They are young and old, short and tall, slim and stout. This is the most important part of the festival: if the men truly believe in Saint John, they will cross the coals without burning. A child in front of me comforts his friend: “They believe, they’ll be fine.” He believes this wholeheartedly, non-cynically. When they line up, a hush goes up around me and bodies press in, angling for a better look.

Ivan crosses first, tears streaming down his face. “Viva San Juan!,” he shouts. The crowd roars it back. Next, a mason. John is the patron saint of masons, and this man loudly prays for his business as he crosses. Viva San Juan! One by one, they cross, none burning. I cannot stop looking at the figurine of Saint John.

The moment the last man crosses, people behind me scream. I think they are cheering in celebration, and then I hear a ball of fire fly above my head and start running with the crowd. The boys are laughing as they kick their flaming balls into the throng of people. This is no kind of church. But it is all part of the same whole. Faith is as tense and messy as is life.

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