Geography of the heart
The traditional “Misa de Gallo” starts day after tomorrow and ends Christmas Eve. And once again, the features of a grime-streaked beggar who wouldn’t budge from the church door will haunt us.
“Simbang Gabi” had just ended when this hobo blocked my exit. If delayed, I’d miss that Bangkok flight. As a “martial law refugee,” Thailand was my United Nations station for 17 years. Our kids then were flying in, from US schools, for Christmas.
“Don’t you remember me?” persisted the tramp in ragged clothes with a diffident half-smile. Seeing my blank look, he murmured: “We were classmates in elementary school. I’m Candido.”
Memory scraped away the wrinkles, the dirt and in-between years. We had played the games of childhood and built model airplanes together. Vacations, we’d swim in the nearby pools.
Today? Tiene cara de hambre.
“You have the face of hunger,” the orphan boy tells the Crucified, in the 1955 Spanish film classic: “Marcelino, Pan y Vino.” In the monastery’s cellar, Marcelino offers bread and wine, filched from the monks’ kitchen, to the haggard Figure on the cross who bestirs and partakes of them. The Philippine teleserye “May Bukas Pa,” aired in 2008, was anchored on this account.
We managed snatches of conversation with Candido. Airline schedules are unyielding and the immigration officer waved us on. Couldn’t I have dropped, into his cup, more than what was hurriedly fished out of a shirt pocket? we fretted.
We’re all invited to journey to Bethlehem. Will Bong, Juan Ponce, Jinggoy & Co. bring, not myrrh, frankincense or gold, but pork barrel slabs? Others, like my beggared-classmate, limp to “the City of David” with empty tin cans. Billionaires here lodge in “gated enclaves” while many go hungry. “There was no room in the inn.”
Yet, “Christmas is the only time I know of when men and women, seem by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1843. Like the re-engineered Ebenezer Scrooge, they “think of people below them, not as another race of creatures bound on other journeys, but as fellow passengers to the grave.”
I’ve never seen my beggar-friend since. But he forms part of Christmases past. As the years slip by, these faces remain. Revisiting them, one discovers a bittersweet (chiaroscuro) tone overlays the montage.
Images include kindnesses by friends one now rarely sees. I dashed out to talk with a pediatrician, glimpsed midway through an Advent mass. Dr. Miguel Celdran lavished care on my now-grown kids. I wanted Mike to meet my lawyer-daughter and family, visiting from California, for Christmas. But he had left.
ROME: “That season comes wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated / The bird of dawning singeth all night long,” Shakespeare wrote.
At the Divine Word Fathers Verbiti headquarters, Filipino OFWs sang carols. These included, of course, “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit”—the hijacked Tagalog adaptation of the 1933 Visayan “Kadsadya Ning Takna-a.” English carols have long blotted out Spanish carols like “Nacio, Nacio Pastores.”
Star lanterns festooned Verbiti. Lights blinked from a belen. A lechon was on the table. But loneliness contorted faces of many, separated from kith and kin, in this “hallowed and gracious time.” Tears slipped past tightly-closed eyes.
Here is part of the diaspora’s un-tabulated costs. Hidden behind those foreign exchange remittances are: pain, separation, alienation, trauma even. Tiene cara de hambre. Christmas is “Emmanuel or God with us in the dark, loneliness and pain,” Filipino SVD fathers told their expat flock. “There are no more unvisited places in our lives.”
JAKARTA: Illnesses in absent family is shattering, specially so for expatriates. We trudged to the Crib in Gereja Theresia (St. Therese’s Church), behind the giant mall Sarina. Half a world away, alone in a Los Angeles hospital, a diaspora statistic — my younger brother — lay dying.
Jesse called in January. “Life is fragile,” he began. “We don’t know when we’ll see each other again. Let’s meet in Cebu.” So, he flew in from LA. Our only sister came from Toronto. The wife and I took the flight from Bangkok. We had a laughter-filled week with our then 86-year-old mother.
Our mother went July. “Please. No heroic measures,” our sister-in-law told the cardiac team that rushed in. And by Christmas, Jesse was gone too.
The Child of Bethlehem enables us to glimpse beyond the grave. “Death is not the extinguishing of life,” the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote. “It is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”
BANGKOK : From our third floor flat, we’d watch this Thai lady slip into the deserted courtyard of Holy Redeemer Church. Draped in the Advent dawn’s darkness, she’d pray before the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help — until Misa de Gallo, introduced by Filipino OFWs started.
Her silhouette brought Isaiah’s lines to mind: “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light. Kings shall (stream) to the brightness of thy rising.” That silhouette, like the image of a prisoner, also forms part of our Christmases past.
MUNTINLUPA : Clad in stained orange togs, the prisoner wouldn’t budge. If delayed, I’d miss a Makati appointment. Seeing the blank look in my eyes, he murmured : “Don’t you remember me? We were playmates in Cebu. My name is Policarpio.”
There is, we’re told, a geography of the heart. Like the Magi, we travel its byways, not merely from place to place, but from grace to grace. It is a search for what endures amid the transient. Without fail, we find it in those with the “face of hunger.”
“And they found the Child with Mary his mother.” Venite Adoremus.
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