A Pinoy ‘belen’
We tacked up again those Christmas star lanterns Sunday. We had stashed the parols before Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: “Hainan”) barreled through. The five-candle Advent wreath is back in our sala. So is the Christmas tree.
The wife dusted off the Nativity figurines: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, Magi, sheep, cattle plus manger. Our family places the Infant in the crib after the noche buena gathering.
This year, roofless Leyte and Samar churches will be hard put to set up cribs. In Calbayog City, the Mother Teresa hospice, which sheltered patients evacuated from Tacloban, has a belen. So have homes in Maasin down in Southern Leyte province up to Baybay in north Leyte. Mangers are up in earthquake-battered Bohol.
Where did all this begin?
In the Advent of 1223, Francis of Assissi came to the Italian hamlet of Grecio. Its tiny chapel would overflow when people came for the Christmas midnight Mass, he realized. So Francis set up an altar in the town square—and added a creche. Let St. Bonaventure continue the story:
“It happened in the third year before (Francis’) death… he prepared a manger, and brought hay, an ox, an ass…. The people gathered; the forest resounded with their voices. And that night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.
“(Francis) stood before the manger… bathed in tears and radiant with joy, he chanted the gospel. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King. Unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, he called Him the ‘Babe of Bethlehem.’
“A (former) soldier, Master John of Grecio had become (Francis’) friend. He affirmed that Francis beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, whom (he) embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.”
Luke’s short account of Jesus’ birth mentions the manger thrice. Mary laid her infant in the manger. Angels told the shepherds a manger would be the sign to identify the newborn savior. And when they stumbled into a decrepit stable, they recognized the Messiah “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manager.”
After Francis’ death in 1226, the custom of having the crib at Christmas spread widely. By dawn of the baroque era, crib-making had evolved and developed into an important folk art, especially in Portugal, in the Tyrol, etc.
The Nativity belen came to us via Ferdinand Magellan’s galleons. “The Filipino Belen” is, in fact, the title of a homily that the late historian Horacio de la Costa, S.J. delivered during a Nativity midnight Mass in the United States. 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 star parol blinks beside the angel figurines. In some Nativity cribs, Joseph and Our Lady are in tropical clothes heedless of the Palestinian winter.
“Often, its just a sandlot or an ordinary table which, at Christmas time, 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 Saint 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 had 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… 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 “be filled with the peace that the world cannot give.”
This coming Christmas will be the first after Yolanda. Families will stare at empty, shattered homes. As we write, the official tally sheet has counted 5,235 dead. And 1,613 are missing. These numbers will still inch up.
We’ll have no family around too. All five children are abroad, and two will return after Christmas. Our seven grandchildren study in Sweden or California. But early Advent, we’ll meet our one-and-a-half-year-old grandson. Lukas and his parents fly in from Michigan for a short visit.
We’ll offer Lukas the Infant, for him to kiss and place in the crib. The wife and I are advanced in years. Will this be our last time to sing for Lukas the carol our parents sang? Vamos, vamos a belen.
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