Tale of two Christmases

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by Jose Ma Montelibano
Christmas is too special to me and to the Filipino people. I did not want to rush an article, which I have to submit on Christmas Day for my column the day after, precisely because Christmas is that special. And it is so apt that the homily that the officiating priest for our Christmas Eve mass gave guided me to the content of this article.

The priest mentioned his insights from the Christmas narratives of evangelists Luke and Matthew, focusing on how deeply contrasting they were. Luke’s version is the more popular one, the imagery of a simple family in a cave with an infant carried lovingly by his mother, the exhilarating experience of shepherds treated to heavenly music by a choir of angels, and stars lighting up the sky. I thought, so celebratory, so Filipino.

But then came the version of Matthew. According to the priest, the situation surrounding the birth of Jesus was dark and dangerous. An insecure and cruel king was searching to a first born male child that threatened the throne, and many mothers were already wailing because their newborn sons had been taken away and killed. It was not just that there was no room in the inn for a very pregnant mother and her concerned husband in one cold night. It was not inconvenience that they had to face, it was danger. I thought, this is so Filipino as well, for those who belong to the poor among us.

Both versions contrast, but not contradict. One showed the glory, the other the sacrifice. In the beginning, and in the unfolding of the story of Jesus, there was great glory as there was great sacrifice. It is a continuing story for mankind, great glory promised by salvation, and great suffering along the way. A glorious God accepting taking on the suffering of man.

It is not difficult to fathom the love and joy of a festive season. After all, man should celebrate the coming of God. Unimaginable a love that would drive divinity to take on the limitations of humanity. At our own mundane dimension, we are already so in awe of the rich and powerful who find it in them to be simple and humble. What more to treat fellow human beings as equal in worth and dignity?

I have observed the frenzy of Christmas preparations, and I do not mean just the shopping part of it. Shopping counts a lot, I am sure, as gift-giving is the most popular expression of Christmas. The generous and fun-loving nature of Filipinos tends to bring gift-giving to another dimension. I know how much Christmas drives the economy in the last quarter quarter of the year in the Western world, but even they will be shocked at how heavy the spending can be by Filipinos if they have the money.

The economy is not only about gift-giving, it is also about eating and celebrating. Food and fiesta go on hyper mode for weeks. Well, okay, for months, the “ber” months up to early January. Our tourism message goes, “it’s more fun in the Philippines,” and it might as well add, “There’s no Christmas like a Filipino Christmas!”

That’s Luke’s version, the spirit of which we have absorbed so totally.

Now comes Matthew, situating the coming of the Child Jesus into an environment so dark and dangerous. No wonder I could not jump into my Christmas article. It seemed I was waiting for this version to bring my understanding to another level, one that is more in tune with my advocacy for the poor and the hungry. With Matthew to complete the view, I have my Christmas story, and one that is not any less Filipino.

The Philippines that will greet the coming of the Holy Child will not have a king as cruel as Herod who ordered all first-born male infants to be slain at the time of Jesus’ birth. That was a form of darkness and danger at that time, in that place. Yet today, for the poor, darkness and danger still greet all their newborn children, male and female. They will be, by accident of birth or by the will of God, the first victims of man’s greed, of man’s apathy.

The Filipino poor, too, like greater humanity, look for their saviour and salvation from darkness and danger. They look for someone to save them from the slavery of poverty, from the pangs of hunger. They seek their freedom and long for a life that gives equal respect and dignity. Meanwhile, kindness from all before they taste their dream will already be a miracle. They seek the Christmas of Luke and not only Matthew’s.

I approach the joy of Christmas with intensity even as I know others do not have the same opportunity. I want that intensity to drive me in wishing that all the poor will have their day in the sun, to see the same brightness of the season I see. I accept that there will never be equality in what is material, but I know, too, that our spirits commonly deserve dignity and opportunity whatever the circumstances of our birth. My only prayer is that I do not forget, never forget, that Christmas is about Christ, and that Christ is about everybody.

I do believe that Filipino resources and imagination can confront and defeat hunger and poverty. The wealth of our motherland and the talent of her sons and daughters awe the world – so why can these not erase what shames us? It must be that too few believe in a fundamental fairness that guarantees security of existence beyond animal survival. It must be that we have deluded ourselves to accept hunger and poverty as normal in our society, with some even believing the poor deserve their suffering.

My wish, then, is for more of humanity to care and share. If at one time two thousand years ago, there was one big Christmas, one giant of a Saviour for all humanity, may we be like little Christmases and everyday heroes for our people in great need.

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