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Sacrifice

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Today’s column is dedicated as an Appreciation for Francisca Limchayseng Ong (1921-2013), Auntie Paquing to many, who taught her children, and her children’s friends, the meaning of sacrifice.

“Oh, no, we’re out of vanilla,” I announced recently over a Sunday lunch, referring to my father’s preferred ice cream flavor.

“Here, you can have mine, Lolo,” my son quickly responded, offering his cup of ice cream and adding, “That’s my sacrifice for you, Lolo.”

I smiled, knowing where this idea of sacrifice was coming from. Only a few days earlier, I was talking with my son’s Christian life education teacher at Xavier School, Rosy Baquiren, and we had somehow drifted to the topic of sacrifice. It came unexpectedly, starting out with her reference to a column where I had written about paying jeepney drivers P8 instead of insisting on a senior-citizen discounted fare of P7. Ms. Baquiren said it got her thinking that indeed P1 may seem like a small sacrifice, but it can mean so much for the jeepney driver.

Jeepney fares are probably not too relevant to second-graders, so Ms. Baquiren has been thinking of other ways of helping kids understand what sacrifice—so important in an era that so emphasizes instant gratification—can mean.

My conversation with Ms. Baquiren got me promising her a column dedicated to the topic of sacrifice, and to schedule it for Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. And the more I thought about the topic, and did some reading, the more I realized how particularly salient this issue of sacrifice is for Filipinos, especially with our frequent claims to being a Christian country.

Beyond ‘atang’

Our brand of folk Catholicism still retains many older pre-Christian concepts of sacrifice, as we see in the atang, where an animal is slaughtered and offered before clearing a field or building a new house. The atang is built on the spirit of reciprocity, replacing what will be taken away from nature—for example, trees having to be chopped down or even trimmed. In other instances, the atang is made as atonement, or to appease restless spirits to make up for some transgression, which is why an atang is sometimes also done for some mysterious lingering illness.

These principles of reciprocity, atonement and appeasement have been integrated into contemporary practices of folk Catholicism, and incorporated into Christianity through the panata, where one appeals to God or the saints for a favor while promising some form of sacrifice in exchange: a novena, a pilgrimage, or something more drastic like joining the Nazarene crowds on Jan. 9, or in its most extreme forms, through flagellation or even being nailed to a cross.

The atang and the panata tend to transform religion into transactional politics, a way of bargaining with the heavens, with an emphasis on public spectacle, with the idea that the bloodier and the more dramatic a sacrifice is, the more favorable one’s chances are of the heavens listening. This world view emphasizes bargaining with God, the saints, the spirits, who are constantly threatening to rain down natural disasters and personal tragedies to punish our transgressions, or to test our faith. The heavens, too, are insatiable in demanding sacrifices, including humans and, as we see in the Old Testament, even one’s own child as in the story of the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac (and, in some accounts, the actual sacrifice of his daughter Jephthah).

Holy Sacrifice

Christianity transcended ritual sacrifice by proposing that God had made the ultimate sacrifice of his “only begotten son,” who became man and died to atone for humanity’s sins. Christ’s sacrifice is central to Christianity, to the point where Catholics talk about “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”

Folk Catholicism in the Philippines blends Old- and New-Testament concepts of sacrifice. There is still a strong element of the old transactional form of religion, including a mix of magical and animist ideas. Thus, Christ’s death makes Holy Week, Good Friday in particular, a particularly potent period, with traditional healers, as well as sorcerers (mangkukulam) going off to sacred mountains on Good Friday to gather plants and other materials to prepare medicinal and magical potions, as well as anting-anting or amulets.

There is, too, an emphasis on self-mortification and punishment (penitensiya), a public performance of piety that is, unfortunately, limited to Lent or special feast days, with a disconnect to one’s life for the rest of the year.

But even when “sacrificing,” the emphasis on form, rather than on substance, creates strange situations. I can’t remember which bishop it was who wisely decried how Filipino Catholics will observe abstinence from meat by concocting gourmet seafood meals, including lobster, a bit like my son telling his Lolo after sacrificing his vanilla:  “Now I’m going to get the kalamansi-lemon sherbet, which tastes better.”

Of course my son said that as a joke. He knows better from his Christian life classes what meaningful sacrifice means, and how “little” daily acts of self-denial count more than dramatic once-a-year displays. Ms. Baquiren assured me cathechism classes are moving in this direction of emphasizing sacrifice as charity and compassion in all we do, throughout the year.

Discipline, disciples

Ms. Baquiren also had some thoughts on sacrifice and its relationship to being disciplined, and being a disciple. I thought of how we Filipinos go overboard with Lenten practices, and yet can be so undisciplined the rest of the year, reflecting an inability to give way to other people, to sacrifice.

Sacrifice should strengthen us, offer us lessons on what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. Christianity was radical in the way it transformed sacrifice from a tool for bargaining for self-interest, to an act that derived power from, simply, being good for others. That was why I decided to make today’s column an Appreciation for Auntie Paquing, who passed away last week and whose entire life was sacrifice for her family and friends, no strings attached, no conditions.

Beyond piety then, sacrifice becomes a spontaneous part of our daily lives—for example, parents cutting down on personal expenditures because we know the money would be better spent for the children. But the minute we think “and someday they better pay me back by taking care of me,” we lose the essence of  sacrifice.

Over at the University of the Philippines, known as the bastion of secularism in the country, we have the famous Oblation statue. The concept of an oblation actually comes from Christianity, oblates being people who offer their lives serving others, thus religious orders with names like Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI).

Not all of us are able to give up our entire lives as oblates, but we do have our daily share of opportunities to sacrifice for the greater good, so well summarized in the aphorism: Live simply so others may simply live.

This year, Valentine’s Day comes right after Ash Wednesday, a good time to remind us that sacrificing a bit more translates to loving more, a lot more.


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