Under the Haze

by Peter Eng

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You can see his concern turn into fear.  Vinny’s face is scarred and hardened after 25 years of hard military service to the emperor.  Battles bring out rage, excitement, passion, not fear.  But this thick pall exceeds the fires of a thousand battles.  The largess of the new emperor Titus on his retirement allows him this beautiful little house at Salernum, overlooking the clear waters of the gulf.  He  moved in only a month ago; he still tingles from his new house, new girlfriend, and new fishing boat.

But the August sky is not looking good.  He first felt the quake and then saw a huge column of smoke in the north, in the direction of Neapolis. There shouldn’t be any problem.  They had the feast of Vulcanalia yesterday, and the prophets of Vulcan, the god of fire and earthquakes had assured them the tremors they have been feeling were only the delighted tossings of a sleeping Vulcan.  They have nothing to do with Mount Vesuvius.

Sallust, his neighbor looks at the black column, more puzzled than fearful.  Sallust has never served in war, and does not recognize the danger.  Or perhaps, it is because he belongs to this new cult that worships a criminal crucified somewhere in the province of Judea. They tend to take things so easily, but are so deeply entrenched in their faith at the same time.  Strange combination.

They sat there on the slope watching in awed silence punctuated only with “Look at that, the smoke is rising!” “Is it coming our way?” “Do you think Vulcan woke up in a bad mood?” “What do you think we should do?”

“Look!” Sallust said, after about half an hour. “The wind is blowing it our way.” “We better get out of here.”

“Yes,” Vinny agreed.  “But where should we go?”

“The smoke is coming from the northwest, so we should flee to the southeast towards Buxentum,” Sallust suggested.

“By the way, Vinny, you haven’t got any transport yet. Why don’t you escape with my family in our wagon.” Sallust offered.

“I was thinking of taking my small fishing boat and hug the coast,” Vinny replied.

Volcano Eruption“You are a landlubber aren’t you?” Sallust countered. “All of us who live by the sea know the sea is the worst place to be when there is an earthquake or tremor. The sea can really churn. This is why we have the saying, ‘When Vulcan comes out to play, Neptune will not be left out.’ You should just come with us.” He said with finality. Vinny agrees, some of that anxiety ease from his face.

“Do you have space for my girlfriend also?” Vinny asked.

“Of course!” Sallust exclaims as he got to his feet.  “We will make space if there isn’t. But we must hurry. You get Flavia, and I will get my family and prepare the wagon.”

Vinny finds Flavia quite beautiful and quite asleep.  “Wake up!” he  cries.  As she rubs sleep from her eyes, he explains to her what is happening. Vinny gets his bag and put in his silver, food, and a change of clothes for Flavia and himself.

Within 30 minutes they are out of the house as Sallust, Livia,their three children and housemaid are loading up their wagon powered by two horses. Vinny and Flavia quickly introduce themselves to Livia whom they have not met and help the family load the supplies. Sallust takes the reins and Vinny joins him in front.  The three women and three children cram together in the back.

Comfort is not foremost on their mind.  The black cloud is coming closer, and it is drizzling ash and pumice.  They need to get out.

The coastal road to Buxentum is slow with wagons and people fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius. At least they have the assurance that what they are doing is probably right.

At twilight, they are only half way to Buxentum, but it is time to set-up camp. The ash is less and there is no more pumice, but the smoky haze around them feels like they are in a ham smokehouse. There is no room for complacency as news arrives from those who escaped Pompeii that the city is no more.  Buried under ash and pumice.

Vinny and Sallust lay on the ground beside the wagon looking blankly into a soupy night sky.  There are no stars, and the moon is no more than a faint fuzzy glow.

“Looks like we dodged this arrow,” Vinny remarked. “Thanks to you,” he added.

“Yes, indeed, we survived this one,” Sallust concurred. “But, you know, one day we will pass from this life.  Have you made plans for that?”

“What? You mean like when we die?” Vinny clarified.

“Yes,” said Sallust.

“I don’t really know. I pray to my Lares and Penates like everybody else.  I hope they will welcome me to where they are, wherever that is. And if I have a chance, I will ask Vulcan why he has to blow his top just when I moved south.” Vinny chuckled good humoredly.

“One day, I will die like anybody else.  But unlike anybody else, I will rise from the dead,” Sallust said matter of factly. “And I will live forever with Iesous1 my Lord and my God.”

“What you say makes no sense to me!” Vinny said. “How can you rise from the dead, and who knows what will happen to our world?”

“I used to think like that, Vinny.  That is until I found Iesous.  Can I tell you what I found?” Sallust asked.

“Sure.”

“The Holy Book of the Jews and the Christians say there will come a time when the earth will be purged with fire, and God will make a new heaven and a new earth. God will judge all of us.  All of us will fail because we don’t deserve such a perfect world which he will create.  But if we belong to his Kingdom, we get to live in his Kingdom in our resurrected body. Do you think you qualify to join God’s holy, sinless Kingdom?”

“You got to be kidding me right?” Vinny remarked.  If I were God, I won’t let me into heaven.  You know I was a soldier. I have killed people in battle, I have raped women, killed children, stolen their valuables, enjoyed the suffering of my enemies on the cross.  How could God ever let me go to heaven?  At best, I join my ancestor Lares.  And I don’t know if I will go to hell or wander this earth as a soul without a body.” Vinny looks resigned.

“You can change your future, you know.  You can stop being on the side of the world and get to God’s side of the story,” Sallust offered.

“What is God like?  What is it to be on his side?” Vinny asked.

“Oh, that one is easy,” Sallust replied. Can you remember the great banquet Emperor Titus hosted to celebrate his coming to power two months ago?”

“Of course!” Vinny exclaimed. “I was there! I had fought under Vespasian, and when my retirement coincided with the emperor coming to power, I got invited to the banquet.  One of these days, I will tell you about this magnificent banquet.”

“For now, can you explain to me why you were invited, and why other people like me were not invited,” Sallust replied.

“As I said, I fought under Vespasian. The house of Flavian has been good to me.  This is why my girlfriend renamed herself Flavia.  I was a soldier under Vespasian.  What would Titus do to honor his father and to reward the soldiers that fought for his father?  He invited us to the banquet of a lifetime!”  Vinny is obviously on a topic he loves.

“Vinny, there is a spiritual war going on since man first walked this earth.  Some call it the battle between good and evil.  But it is not abstract.  Like we can call Rome’s battles ‘struggles between civilization against barbarism.’  The reality is that in every war or struggle there are real persons in the struggle. Civilization and barbarity did not wield swords and spears.  You did.  Your enemies did.  You were fighting for your kingdom and they were fighting for theirs.  You won and they lost.  You were invited to this great banquet in celebration of your victory. Human history will climax when God will defeat the devil in a cosmic battle, after which there will be a great feast.  All who belong to him, his church, will be like a bride to him.  There will be a great celebration and the prophet John said, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:9, NLT).”

Sallust continues, “When our human history ends, I will find myself on the right side, and the winning side. Just like you found yourself on the winning side when you fought for Vespasian.”

“You see this smoke, this haze, you smell this foul air?  It is different things to different people.  But to me, it is a wonderful reminder that when God purifies the earth with fire and burns up all that is bad, I will be spared.  Iesous, was crucified by Pontius Pilate, our Roman governor.  But he rose again from the dead three days later and tells us that when we belong to him, build his kingdom, fight our spiritual war with him, he will raise us up from the dead.”

“Do you mean, like our soul going to heaven?” Vinny is sort of getting it.

“Yes, but it is much more.  When we die, our soul goes to God. But we are without our body.  Souls cannot do things the body can do.  God made us body and soul.  At death, body and soul are parted. But at the resurrection, God raised our body and gives it back to us — if we belong to him. It will be an incorruptible body, and we reign with him over all the earth in an everlasting kingdom.  It is called the new heaven and the new earth.

“Wow, how come nobody told me this before!”  Vinny is now sitting up.  “I want to be on God’s side, on the winning side. I can imagine it will be so wonderful, much better than the banquet by the emperor Titus. I will dodge many arrows in life, but one day, there will be an arrow with my name on it.  I want to die knowing I will rise up again.  Is this why I hear you guys worship the Iesous guy who was crucified as a criminal?”

“Yes, indeed!” Sallust replied. “All his disciples lost all hope for a Jewish Kingdom that would overthrow our Roman Kingdom when the Roman governor crucified him.  But the best part is this. Their hope was wrong, and they had to have their hopes dashed. Iesous, whom they also call Christos, rose from the dead, not defeating the Roman Kingdom but the Kingdom of Death.  All who belong to him share in this resurrection! All who belong to him belong to his Kingdom.”

“Wow! Wow! This is mind boggling! It is like when Julius Caesar seems to have lost all hope when fighting the Gauls, and then through sheer brilliance that nobody else could see, he wrested victory from certain defeat.” Vinny said, “I understand now. I need to belong to the right Kingdom, fight for the right imperator, and when human history winds up, I will be resurrected to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Is that it?”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Sallust laughed.

That night, Sallust took a flask of water from their provision, had Vinny kneel down, and as he poured water over Vinny’s head, said, “Vinny, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

That night, AD 79, 25th August, under the foul smoke of Vesuvius, came the sweet fragrance of a man forgiven for his past sins, and redeemed for all eternity into the everlasting Kingdom of God.


A Story by Peter Eng
, as he reflects on the haze under which Singapore suffers, and the haze that hangs over the neighborhood of Mt Vesuvius when it erupted on 24th August 79 Anno Domini.

Footnote: 1Iesous is the Greek/Latin name for Jesus.  The initial “I” of a word is pronounced as “Y” but written as “I.” The sound would be “Yesous.” This is the sound from which the Chinese call Jesus, which is much closer than “Jesus” in English.


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