Hanging up a star
CEBU CITY—Finally we found the Christmas parol, or star lanterns, in our cluttered storeroom, and dusted them off.
It was only mid-November then, but we put them up anyway and lighted them. So did our two granddaughters, in another part of this old town.
It set off historical reminiscing.
“We saw His star rise in the East and we come to honor Him,” travel-weary men of regal bearing told the paranoid Herod, the ancient accounts recall. Herod asked to be kept in the loop. “Bring me word so I, too, may worship him.”
“[Then] the star … went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the Child was … with Mary His mother…” Then, warned in a dream, they set off on another way to their home country.
Even today, the Christmas star puzzles scientists. “Was it a supernova or a comet?” asked Dr. Peter Andrews of the University of Cambridge and Robert Massey of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. A “stationary point of Jupiter,” perhaps?
In the year many scholars believe Jesus was born, a combination of a bright nova and a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces was seen, some accounts say. “Ancient Chinese astronomers recorded this as an unusually bright star that appeared in the eastern sky for 70 days. It was a rare sight.”
“None of possible astronomical explanations has overwhelming evidence that it should be preferred to others,” Andrews and Massey conclude. But the nova, comet, or variable star explanation “appears more likely.”
The astronomers’ debate continues today. So does the puzzle over a vulnerable child who lighted a world, though born in a manger that foreshadowed our 2015 slums.
Earlier worldwide analysis by Unicef sifts through the plight of 93 million children in 53 countries. Look beyond traditional measuring gauges, like family income. A starker portrait of penury afflicting children then emerges.
Years ago I noted that St. Luke’s short account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem mentions the manger: Mary laid her infant in the manger. Angels told the shepherds, “And this shall be a sign for you. You will find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.” And when they did stumble into the decrepit stable, they recognized the Messiah as described.
The Christmas crèche dates back to St. Francis of Assisi. In 1293, the first crèche was celebrated in the woods of Greccio near Assisi, on Christmas Eve.
St. Francis’ idea of bringing Bethlehem into one’s own town spread quickly all over the Christian world,. After Francis’ death in 1226, the custom of having the crib at Christmastime spread widely.
In the Philippines, I once recalled, the Nativity belen came to us via Ferdinand Magellan’s galleons. “The Filipino ‘Belen’” is, in fact, the title of a homily that the historian Horacio de la Costa, SJ, delivered during a Nativity Midnight Mass in the United States, where he was finishing his studies. Excerpts:
“In many offices today, a Filipino ‘belen’ graces the entrance. Nipa shingles make up the stable’s roof. Coconut palm trees flank the entrance to the manager, and a suspended parol blinks beside the angel figurines. In some Nativity cribs, St. Joseph and Our Lady are in tropical clothes heedless of the Palestinian winter.
“Often, it’s just a sandlot or an ordinary table which, at Christmastime, we try to represent to ourselves the birth of our Savior. In the center, we place a Christ Child. And around it we arrange Our Lady and St. Joseph, the way Catholics everywhere, and in every age, have pictured them.
“But the rest of the scene bears very little resemblance to the real Bethlehem. The shepherds are there. But they are dressed as farmers and fishermen, because we have no sheep. And we have no winters.
“In one corner, the Three Kings are on their way. But they do not ride camels. Rather, one of them leads our town’s patient beast of burden: the carabao. And they look up to the marvelous star—made of paper pasted on a bamboo frame and hung from the ceiling.
“You will smile, perhaps, at our simplicity. And it’s true, of course, that history is all wrong. Christ was not born in a palm leaf shack, and the Wise Men never brought their gifts on a carabao.
“[Yet] in our ignorance [is] a very great truth.
“Although Christ was born 2,000 years ago in Palestine, He was not born only for that nation and that time. He was born for all time and for all peoples. He was born for you and for me. He willed to become a man in order to save all men. And He chose to be born homeless because he wanted everyone to be at home.
“This little Son of Mary is also ‘God of God’—as we say in the Credo of the Mass, ‘Light of Light; true god of true god; begotten, not made; of one substance with the father; by whom all things were made….’ There are for Him no distances. And He lives in an eternal now.
“And it is right, profoundly right, that we should surround his cradle with all that is familiar and dear to us—our houses, our tools, our toys, everything that is part of ourselves and our daily lives. Because it was to bless and sanctify these, and ourselves with them, that Christ was born….
“There is room for all the world … in a Baby’s arms. We look deep in this Infant’s eyes, as our fathers did before us, and are filled with the peace that the world cannot give.”
Juan L. Mercado served as a communication officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangkok. Thereafter, he was posted in FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy, as attaché de cabinet. He wrote for the Inquirer as a regular columnist from February 2004 until December 2014.
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