CEBU CITY — The grime-streaked beggar, at the church, door wouldn’t budge. Misa de Gallo had just ended. If delayed, I’d miss that overbooked flight for Bangkok. As a “martial law refugee”, Thailand was my United Nations station for 17 years. Four of five kids were flying in, from US schools, for Christmas.
Shifting his battered tin can, the beggar persisted. “Don’t you remember me?” Seeing my blank, he murmured : “We were classmates in elementary school…I’m Candido….”
Memory scraped away the wrinkles, dirt and in-between years. We had played the games of childhood. Together, we built model airplanes and sailed toy boats. Vacations, we’d swim in nearby pools.Today?
Tiene cara de hambre. “You have the face of hunger,” the orphan boy tells the Crucified in the film classic Marcelino, Pan y Vino.
We managed snatches of conversation. Airline schedules are unyielding. Couldn’t I have dropped, into his tin cup, more than what was hurriedly fished out of a shirt pocket?, I fretted even as the immigration officer waved us on.
We’re all invited to journey to Bethlehem.
For some, like Imelda Marcos, the invitation comes, as The Guardian notes, while she “clicks a button for servants in a Manila penthouse cluttered with masterpieces by Picasso, Gaugin, priceless antique Buddha statues — and gold, gold, gold.”
Others, like my beggared-classmate, wearily limp to “the City of David” with empty tin cans.
Billionaires here lodge in “gated enclaves” while many lack frugal livelihoods. “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 re-engineered Ebenezer Scrooge, they “think of 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 forms part of Christmases past. As the years slip by, these faces remain. Revisiting them, one discovers a bittersweet (chiaroscurro) tone overlays the montage.
Images include kindnesses by friends one now rarely sees. I dashed out to talk with a pediatrician, glimpsed midway through an Advent mass. Dr. Miguel Celdran lavished care on my now-grown kids. I wanted Mike to meet my lawyer-daughter and her doctor-husband from San Francisco, visiting for Christmas. But he had left.
ROME — “That season comes wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated/The bird of dawning singeth all night long,” At the Divine Word fathers’ Verbiti headquarters, Filipino OFWs sang carols. These included, of course, Ang Pasko ay Sumapit — the Tagalog adaptation of the 1933 Visayan daygon: Kadsadya ning Takna-a. English carols have long blotted out Spanish carols like Nacio, Nacio Pastores.
Star lanterns festooned Verbiti. Lights blinked from a Nativity crib or belen. Even lechons were on the table. But corrosive loneliness contorted the faces of many, separated from kith and kin, in this “hallowed and gracious time”.
Tears slipped past tightly-closed eyes. Here is part of the overseas worker diaspora’s untabulated costs. Hidden behind those foreign exchange remittances are pain, separation, alienation, trauma even. Tiene cara de hambre.
Christmas is “Emmanuel – God with us” in the dark, loneliness and pain, Filipino SVD fathers told their expat flock “There are no more unvisited places in our lives.”
JAKARTA — Illnesses in absent 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, a diaspora statistic – my younger brother – lay dying.
Jesse called in January. Life is fragile, he began. We don’t know when we’ll see each other again. “Let’s meet in Cebu”. So he flew in from LA. Our only sister came from Toronto. The wife and I took the flight from Bangkok. We had a laughter-filled week with our then 86-year old mother.
Our mother went 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 picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help — until 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.” That silhouette, like the image of a prisoner, also forms part of our Christmases past.
MUNTINLUPA — Clad in stained orange togs, the prisoner wouldn’t budge. If delayed, I’d miss a dinner appointment. Seeing my blank look, 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 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.