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Ghosts from Christmases past

/ 07:12 AM December 13, 2014

The grime-streaked beggar standing at the church exit refused to budge. The first of the traditional nine Misa de Gallo Masses before Christmas had just ended.

A delay would mean I’d miss that overbooked flight to Bangkok. I was a “martial law refugee” and Thailand was our United Nations station for 17 years. Four of five kids were flying in, from US schools, for Christmas.

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Irritated, we tried to shove past the man. He didn’t budge. Shifting his battered tin cup, the beggar persisted: “Don’t you remember me?”

Seeing the blank look in my eyes, he murmured: “We were classmates in Cebu Normal elementary school. I’m Candido.”

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Memory scraped away the wrinkles, the dirt, and the in-between years. Indeed, we had played the games of childhood. Together, we built model airplanes and sailed toy boats.

Vacations, we’d swim in nearby town swimming pools.

And today?

Tiene cara de hambre. “You have the face of hunger,” the orphan boy tells the Man nailed to a cross in the monastery basement in the film classic “Marcelino, Pan y Vino.” The boy offers Him bread and wine scrounged from the monastery’s kitchen.

Candido and I managed snatches of conversation, but airline schedules are unyielding.

Later, as the immigration officer waved us on, we fretted: Couldn’t we have dropped into his tin cup more than what was hurriedly fished out of a shirt pocket?

We’re all invited to journey to Bethlehem. No one is excluded, not even those Ampatuan massacre murderers or vice presidents who dodge Senate investigations without blushing. That boggles the mind. But Christmas has always shattered the limits we clamp on it.

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For some, like Imelda Marcos, the invitation comes, as the newspaper Guardian notes, while she “clicks a button for servants, in a Manila penthouse, with masterpieces by Picasso, priceless Buddha statues and gold, gold, gold.”

Others, like my classmate Candido, wearily limp to the “City of David” with empty tin cups. Billionaires here dine in “gated enclaves” while many skip meals in the next slum. “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. Like the recycled Ebenezer Scrooge, they see “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 is part of Christmases past. As the years slip by, their wraith-faces reappear. A bittersweet chiaroscuro tone overlays the montage.

ROME: “That season comes wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated/ The bird of dawning singeth all night long.” At the Divine Word fathers’ Verbiti headquarters, overseas Filipino workers sang carols. (These included, of course, “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit,” the Tagalog adaptation of the 1933 Visayan daygon, “Kasadya Ning Takna-a”). English carols have blotted out Spanish carols like “Nacio, Nacio Pastores.”

Star lanterns and a Nativity scene festooned the hall. But corrosive loneliness contorted the faces of OFWs separated from kith and kin, in this “hallowed and gracious time.”

Their tears underscored the diaspora’s untabulated costs. Hidden behind those dollar padala are: pain, separation, alienation, trauma even. Tiene cara de hambre.

Christmas, Filipino SVD fathers told their expat flock, is Emmanuel—”God with us”—in the dark, loneliness and pain.

JAKARTA: Illness in the 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, my younger brother—a diaspora statistic—lay dying.

Jesse called in January. “Life is fragile,” he mused. “We don’t know when we’ll see each other again. Let’s meet in Cebu.” So he flew in from LA, our sister came from Toronto, the wife and I arrived from Bangkok. We had a laughter-filled week with our then 86-year-old mother.

Our mother went in July. “Please. No heroic measures,” our sister-in-law told the cardiac team that rushed in. And by Christmas, Jesse was gone, too.

The Child of Bethlehem enables us to glimpse beyond the grave. “Death is not the extinguishing of life,” the 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 icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help until the Misa de Gallo, introduced by Filipino workers, started.

Her silhouette brought Isaiah’s lines to mind: “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light. Kings shall [stream] to the brightness of thy rising.”

MUNTINLUPA: Clad in stained orange togs, the prisoner wouldn’t budge. A delay would mean I’d 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 also from grace to grace. It is a search for what endures amid the transient. Without fail, we find it in those with cara de hambre.

“And they found the Child with Mary his mother,” the story goes. Venite adoremus.

E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com

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