Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Birth, Death and Rebirth

With Christmas Day and New Year’s Day celebrations behind us, we look forward to the challenges of 2009.

As a child, I was constantly delighted by the closeness of two great events in every year. What with the merry gift-giving and unequalled excitement of both holidays, the whole two-week respite always gave me great relief from almost a year-long bout of relentless school work. The two-month summer vacation had its joys and fun, too, but not the diverse colors and festive mood of those year-end and year-start activities. Toy guns that used gunpowder, battles with bamboo cannons that spewed out tin cans, caroling in the neighborhood with improvised jingles from flattened bottle-caps, simple home-made cards, bamboo-framed candle-lit lanterns, Chinese firecrackers and rice-pudding. Childhood memories that still glow and echo with poignant songs and youthful revelry.

In a few months, so-called Christendom will remember Christ's death and resurrection. The week-long commemoration always brought an entirely opposite mood to that of Christmas and New Year. In fact, our parents kept us inside the house on Good Friday with the stern warning not to make any noise because "God is dead". (I remember feeling like a flagellant once when my mother gave me lashes on my buttocks for disobedience.)

As a young member of the Catholic Church, I never quite felt the triumphant joy that Easter was meant to bring. Whereas many Christians nowadays consider it a more momentous occasion than Christmas, the lack of palpable symbolism (no home-made resurrection scene to match Bethlehem's poignant nativity scene, no repetitive songs played over the radio about angels proclaiming Christ had risen and no feverish gift-giving to celebrate the greatest gift of all - Eternal Life) lessens its (Easter’s) importance. Good Friday, at least, had its Cenaculos (Passion Plays) reenacting the sufferings of Christ, it penitent flagellants marching the streets with their self-induced pains and, of course, its ubiquitous image of Christ hanging on the cross in every church, home and even publications.

Seeing the dying and suffering Christ every week obviously gave the impression that death and suffering superseded the glorious resurrection of Christ in terms of importance. I know things are much different now; but my experience gave me somewhat distorted values as an adolescent. In spite of recent changes in the spiritual views of many people, however, it would not be farfetched to say that this applies to many other individuals.

From primary school to college, my view of things took a gradual warping from a sentimental reaction to God being born in a manger and offering His life on the cross to that of total indifference to everything that resembled religion. The welcome respite and joyful family reunions during religious festivities remained but the mind reeled in the face of so many issues in life that were then so foreign to a child's naïve eyes. It took a spiritual reformation in college to lead me to realize that all that I had gone through every year as a Catholic had served merely as a training ground for discovering what life was and is all about.

All the above is an oversimplified picture of one person's exodus from childhood to maturity. But as a Filipino, I consider it a unique blessing - by virtue of a historical blunder committed by the Spanish authorities 112 years ago - to commemorate the death of our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal two days before the New Year. Blunder, both in the sense that his execution at their hands eventually led to their colonial downfall and in the sense that they didn't wait until after New Year to get rid of their nemesis. The latter sense needs an explanation that grows out of the discussion above.

How ironic it now seems that after introducing to these islands the appreciation for the Good News proclaimed by angels and establishing for almost four centuries in the hearts and minds of Filipinos the same thoughts and feelings that I myself experienced as a child and even now as an adult, that the Spaniards would put to death one who spent his life giving life and freedom to his nation. No, they put out the light that struggled to shed brilliance into the darkened souls of thousands of oppressed Filipinos who dutifully practiced a religion that failed to live up to its calling. That is, as exhibited by the Spanish friars. Malas is the only word that can describe the timing of such incongruous thinking by the colonial leaders. Not only does it mean "bad" (from the Spanish word malo, for "bad") but it also connotes bad luck which today many would translate as karma (indirect punishment for wrongdoing).

Methinks, the Spaniards' impatience spoiled all the fun the Filipinos were having during the holidays in 1896. We can picture many Manileños expecting to spend the holidays having a picnic at Luneta (a tradition my family still kept when we settled in the metropolis) but now had to go there to watch their noble advocate shot by musketry. We can imagine many Filipinos then having felt so proud to have an excellent compatriot in Rizal who had earned praises in Europe and had the courage to speak out through his pen; but now had to see him end his lonesome fight against a vengeful giant.

Did Rizal not write about the teachings of Christ? Did he not seek to live a life in accordance to His higher calling? Did he not long to go to a better place "donde la fe no mata, donde el que reina es Dios" (where faith kills not, where God reigns)? And so, every December 30 we recall the execution of Rizal at Bagumbayan a few days before we celebrate the coming of every New Year. We know that two years after his death, the Spanish regime ended. Nevertheless, we now recall and celebrate those two events as one glorious process of awakening in our national life. Rizal's death launched our country's journey into becoming a free nation. A martyr's sacrifice for a people's rebirth.

Easter Sunday does not come until April 2009. Yet, as Filipinos we have all the reasons to rejoice even as early as now that, in keeping with the sacrificial life lived by our Lord Jesus Christ, our national hero had given us the inspiration to welcome and live the year 2009 with greater hope and triumph in our hearts.

They can take away our champions, our defenders, even our heroes. But they cannot take away our innate right to rejoice in our God-given blessings. Christ came to give us life and that we might have it more abundantly. He reigns over our land. He will lead us to final victory. We must claim what is rightfully ours.

Mabuhay and Pilipinas!

(Photo of Subic Bay above courtesy of Ramil Tuazon.)