The tiny star lantern swayed on the dirt-caked string looped to a parking lot’s fence. The cord’s other end was hooked to a canvas sheet serving as the “roof” for the street-corner “home” of Berto, Cora and 3-year-old Tina. (not their real names) on Christmas 2012.
“We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage,” travel-weary men of regal bearing told the paranoid Herod. They were the “magi from the east” who arrived in Jerusalem, we read. “Where is the newborn king?” they asked.
A bright nova, plus a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, did appear in the Pisces constellation in the year 5 BC. “Chinese astronomers recorded this unusually bright star that blazed, in the eastern sky, for 70 days.”
“It was a rare sight,” Dr. Peter Andrews of the University of Cambridge and Robert Massey of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich agree. The “more likely” explanation is a “comet, nova or variable star.”
Berto has the hangdog features of the perennially jobless. Cora limps from arthritis. Both wouldn’t know what the astronomers are saying. Life for such families is nasty, brutal—and short, the Inquirer’s Ceres Doyo notes. Many huddle under a bridge or at bus stops. Women give birth near slimy estero. Some couples copulate in pushcarts.
This family hung up that star because Christmas eases their grinding needs. The Misas de Gallo bring food they rarely have. Indifferent passersby dip into wallets.
In 1843, author Charles Dickens put his finger on Cora and Berto’s experience: “Christmas is the only time… when men and women seem, by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely.” They see “people below them, as if they were really fellow passengers to the grave, not another race of creatures bound on other journeys…”
Cora and Berto never made it to Grade 6. Poverty forced them into the city—and short rations. They huddle in a kanto “home” come lashing rain or blistering sun. Now and then a barangay tanod shoos them away. “We move a couple of blocks up,” shrugs Cora. “When he turns his back, we return.”
Like them, their child sleeps on discarded cardboard laid atop sidewalk concrete. Is this a sidewalk Christmas crib? “They laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”
They’re the face of dry-as-dust statistics. One out of four scrounge below national poverty lines. The top 10 percent, in exclusive subdivisions, consume 37 centavos out of every peso. The Bertos and Coras make do with three centavos.
Penury in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is quadruple that of Metro Manila. Children of the poorest, like Tina, risk dying before the age of five. A child born in Tawi-Tawi today has a life expectancy of 54 years. In La Union, they live to 74 years. Over 5.6 million kids between the ages of six and 15 never enroll in or drop out of school.
“Like relay runners, generations pass on the torch of life,” Lucretius wrote. They also hand on frailties. Chronic hunger, for example, unleashes anemia among pregnant and breast-feeding mothers. Lack of Vitamin A, iron and iodine in mothers sap the intelligence quotients of babies in the womb or those suckling at dry breasts.
The IQs of poorly nourished children can be whittled by 10 to 14 percent, the Asian Development Bank notes. “Reduced mental capacity” blights a tenth of stunted kids. Worse, IQ crippling is irreversible. Rarely visible, it doesn’t trigger alarm bells. But doors in the future slam shut for children whose “elevators will never run all the way to the top floor.”
Christmas today comes, as it did 2,000 years ago, to a society where children are still cut down by hunger, as centurions’ swords did in Bethlehem. “If you know how rich you are, you are not rich,” Imelda Marcos once said. “But me, I am not aware of the extent of my wealth. That’s how rich we are.”
Members of today’s elite scramble to conserve their loot. Yesterday’s Herod or Tiberius Caesar are today’s Ferdinand, Erap or Gloria. Few see that the poor have as much right to share in what is available. Sharing with the less fortunate is “humbug,” Scrooge insisted. Even fewer share their creativity, time and possessions to enable those of skimpy means and confined horizons to reach “sunlit plains” of humane lives.
If we “open our shut-up hearts freely,” we’ll discover they’re “hard as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire—secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” Jonathan Powers wrote.
In anguish, man always asks, Why this suffering? liberation theologian Leonardo Boff of Brazil writes. “At Christmas, God does not ask questions but lives out answers. Instead, He is born a child … and shares our sufferings. He is humiliated, too, wounded and broken like us. This is the why of our sorrows, afflicted with infirmity.
“The Child of Bethlehem tells us that everything has a meaning, so deep, God made it his own. It is worthwhile to be a man, to share the life of men, because God chose to be a man like us.
“[Christmas] shows that God himself lives like this.” Born in a manger, He had nowhere to lay his head on in life. He was buried in a borrowed tomb. Just like Berto, Cora, and maybe Tina.
That tiny star lantern swaying on a stained string over the kanto crib reminds both beggars and millionaires that “the star… went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the Child was… with Mary His mother.” Venite adoremus.