Juan L. Mercado

Christmas faces

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“Raul” tops our Christmas Eve checklist. He’s a 55-year-old who collects empty bottles and scrap for a living. He looks 80 from having had one “altanghap” too many. That’s jargon for almusal (breakfast), tanghalian (lunch) and hapunan(dinner) crammed into one meal.

 

The 7.2-magnitude earthquake of Oct. 15 proved the deadliest in 23 years. It shattered, among other places, the Cebu Capitol post office building such that Raul could no longer use its front steps for “sleeping quarters.” Evenings, he would shuffle from one building to another, seeking patchy shelter.

Until Nov. 8. That day, Supertyphoon “Yolanda”  rampaged  through the Visayas. It slashed Raul’s already limited options.  “There was no room in the inn” on the first Christmas Eve, too.

Penury ratchets up the pain. The poverty rate here brackets us with Haiti. We lag behind China, Thailand and Indonesia in tamping down indigence. More than a quarter of Filipinos  hobble below the poverty line, despite claims by Senators Bong Revilla, Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada that their pork slabs went to the poor.

More Filipino women die in childbirth today than in the early 1990s. And more infants are orphaned today than in 2006. Most of those deaths were preventable. Malaysia slashed maternal death rates to 31 and China to 38. “Sri Lanka and Honduras led the way in slashing maternal mortality,” the New York Times reports.

It is harsh to say that we’ve turned a deaf ear to the death rattle in the throats of thousands of young mothers and infants. But it is true.

“No beggars here, Lola” (grandma), our grandchildren Kristin, 9, and Katarina, 7, skyped from Sweden. They’re in a rural town for a year to pick up their mother’s language. A couple of Christmas Eves, back in Cebu, they gave food packs to beggars. “The lola sat down and ate the rice and sardines we gave,” they said. “Then, she cried.”

That was Kindergarten 101 on hunger. Later, they’ll learn that about 6 percent of 12.6 million kids drop out from primary school. Then, they may see that the kids they gave food to had little chances for full human lives. “I don’t like marshmallows,” Kathie gripes. “Don’t say that,” Kristin snaps. “Many children have nothing to eat.”

On Christmas Day, churches will be crammed. But Raul and the lola who wept are the faces of those who probably won’t shuffle in. We’re locked into a society where the lifestyles of the few rich exclude others, Pope Francis said. “Almost without being aware of it… we end up incapable of feeling compassion (for the poor) and the need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility, not our own.”

Christmas “is either the tale of a prophet, a political agitator or the Messiah,” columnist Anna Quindlen wrote in “Frankincense in Aisle Five”: “His name was Jesus…. Horrific wrongdoing by the people who embraced the story has not been able to kill it: the Inquisition, the Holocaust. The many schisms among its followers have not destroyed it: Luther’s manifesto, Henry VIII’s marriages.

“Through plague and war, famine and invasion, the tale was told and the lesson learned, of love for neighbors, of charity toward the poor. Carols were sung in foxholes and prisons… O ye of little faith, who believe that somehow the birth of Christ is dependent upon acknowledgement in a circular from OfficeMax!

 

“The Messiah was sent to save us from our sins, but clearly not our silliness…. the cycle… has once again wound around to the anniversary of the Nativity…. It is surprising to discover that some believe the enduring power of the story of the Child born in Bethlehem to be so shaky that it must be shored up by plastic creches…”

Jesus threw the money-changers out of the temple, saying that they had made His father’s house into a den of thieves. Quindlen asks: “Does that sound like someone who would  hanker to be formally recognized at (department stores) as though his legacy depended upon being given pride of place among teddy bears in Santa hats?

“…the star of Bethlehem was nothing like a blue-light special….  For those things, see Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the greatest story never sold. It’s an insult to the power and the glory of faith to seek it in fried foods, statuary or perfunctory greetings of overworked store clerks.”

Or ask Makati Mayor Jejomar Erwin Binay Jr.? He denied that he and bodyguards, with pistols cocked, threatened Dasmariñas Village guards who insisted on enforcing the rule: No exits permitted after 10 p.m. from the Banyan gate. They were directed to another exit a minute away. They insisted, resulting in an hour-and-half standoff and fake arrests of the guards.

Binay insists he did not say, “Do you know who I am?” Years back, a Cebuano congressman slapped a traffic aide saying: “Don’t you know who I am?” Contrast that with John’s account  of Christmas Day. “He came unto is own, and His own received him not.”

Thieves are lionized here, not ostracized. Cash ushers them to first places at tables. Those in a position to adopt reforms are the very persons who scavenge without letup.

Raul and the lola who wept never read the 92-word greeting that Nobel Laureate (1928) Sigrid Undset sent. But they embody its message:

“And when we give each other Christmas gifts in His name, let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon and the stars, and the earth with its forests and mountains and oceans—and all that lives and move upon them.

“He has given us all green things and everything that blossoms and bears fruit and all that we quarrel about and all that we have misused. And to save us from our foolishness, from all our sins, He came down to earth and gave us Himself.”

 

 

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