On Dec. 16 we mark the first of nine “Simbang Gabi” Masses. Our parents called this run-up to Christmas as “Misa de Gallo”. Before cockcrow, families streamed into star-lantern-festooned churches for the “Mass of the Rooster”. Snacks of puto bumbong, chocolate and rice cakes followed.
The roots of this custom are embedded in a Castilian-influenced past. Farmers attended a dawn Mass before tilling fields under a blistering sun. Today, call center agents, physicians, nurses, police officers and others workers going off night duties hear early Mass.
Some of us are what the Inquirer’s Gilda Cordero-Fernando aptly dubs “Forever 81.”The Associated Press uses the term “near elderly.” Whenever Simbang Gabi starts, ghosts of Christmases past flit in.
In 2012, memories of a beggar who wouldn’t budge will haunt us again. After Misa de Gallo, he blocked my exit. If delayed, I’d miss that Bangkok flight. I was a “martial law refugee,” and Thailand was my UN station. And kids were flying in from US schools for Christmas.
“Remember me,” he persisted. Seeing my blank look, he said: “We were elementary school classmates. I’m Memory scraped away wrinkles, dirt and in-between years. We played the games of childhood together. We swam in nearby pools. ”
Today? Tiene cara de hambre. “You have the face of hunger,” the orphan tells the Crucified in the film “Marcelino, Pan y Vino.”
Airline schedules are unyielding. We chatted hurriedly. Couldn’t I have given more than what was hurriedly fished out of a shirt pocket? I fretted even as the immigration officer waved us on.
We’re all invited to Bethlehem: from Typhoon “Pablo” victims, my beggared classmate, bejeweled Imelda Marcos, to tycoon Eduardo Cojuangco, pockets stuffed with 16.2 million San Miguel Corp. shares, bought with the coconut levy extorted from small farmers, thanks to Arroyo justices in today’s Supreme Court.
Billionaires here lodge in “gated enclaves.” Outside, malnourishment results in 21 out of every 100 infants having low weight at birth. Wasting and stunting (32 percent) result when kids are nursed by wizened, ill-fed mothers. “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. 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 that a bittersweet (chiaroscuro) tone overlays the montage.
“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 “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit”, 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. A lechon was on the table. But loneliness contorted the 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 untabulated 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 expatriate flock. “There are no more unvisited places in our lives.”
JAKARTA: Illnesses in absent family is shattering, especially 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 in July. And by Christmas, Jesse was gone, too. Yet, the Child of Bethlehem enables us to glimpse beyond the grave. “Death is not the extinguishing of life,” 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 overseas workers, started.
Her silhouette etched Isaiah’ lines: “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’ miss a dinner 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,” the ancient story goes. Venite Adoremus.