Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sinulog stories*

WHAT’S your Sinulog story?

As I was thinking of what to put in the article that will occupy this space on Sunday, I realized for the first time how, for years now, the piece I compose for every third Sunday of January is invariably about the fiesta of the Sto. Niño de Cebu.

I must have been in my mid-30s when I walked out of the newsroom a few minutes before Saturday noonbreak to find the streets sucked empty of vehicular traffic. The main thoroughfares were being prepared for the 1 p.m. Grand Procession.

Rose, a newsroom colleague, was my companion to my first procession. Unlike Rose, who has heard mass every Friday at the Basilica and attended the novena leading up to the fiesta for as long as she can remember, I’m proof that one can be born in Cebu and not have any inkling about the devotion for the Sto. Niño.

Of this quintessentially Cebuano side, I had a label retained from a college lecture: syncretism. Fusing bits of Catholicism and folk beliefs does not always yield a seamless byproduct, a blending free of contradictions, I reasoned.

That year, though, I met my deadlines early. Rose and I joined the streams of people converging downtown. Weeks before the novena, my editor assigned me to look for historical anecdotes to run as sidebars alongside the paper’s daily coverage of the fiesta. I trawled the Net, read old newspapers, scanned books and visited museums. There was a surfeit of information about Cebu’s “Patron”.

However, the most engrossing stories came from people. It seemed everyone had a story to tell about the ways the figure in red and gold touched their lives.

The narratives came even when I wasn’t interviewing: classmates having an impromptu reunion in a jeepney going to the Basilica; a devotee assisted by fellow passengers to get a towering Niño in a battered hat and muddy sandals be seated in a stifling, crowded Vhire.

As with other icons, the Sto. Niño does not lack for history, dogma and pageantry. Yet, people also refer to Him as if He were their father, son, brother, confidante, best friend. What’s the fate of skepticism in the inner circle of divine and familiar ties?

I admit I was still on assignment mode when I walked out of the newsroom with Rose. Not having experienced the press of bodies anticipating their sighting of the red-and-gold figure, I led Rose too close to the Basilica gates when, in a great clamor of bells, a vision in red and gold issued forth and the world erupted into a sea of waving, upraised hands. I found myself waving, too, a queer but not unpleasant taste of the novelty of participation while on coverage.

Seconds later, awe turned to helplessness and panic when the crowd surged forward to follow the flower-bedecked carriage. I lost touch with the ground as I was gripped and propelled by neighboring bodies as we all turned from an avenue into a narrower street. As suddenly as it came, the fear went. The crowd adjusted; I was deposited gently back to the street. I found Rose but could not tell her anything, my throat still gripped by something suspiciously salty.

Many of the stories I’ve heard explain why January is not just an extended holiday but a second Christmas to Cebuanos. Most of the stories attributed to the Child’s intercession are momentous: the desperate answered, families healed, the straying recovered, wishes granted.

As it is with miracles, even the small ones are seismic: about to kiss the image of the Holy Infant for the first time, it is not the spectacle within the glass case that stills me but the depression on the floor just before the image, as if heavy marble gave way under the weight of the intangible gifts offered by pilgrims.

On the second day of this year’s novena, I was standing in the still empty expanse of the Pilgrims’ Center, waiting for the 1 p.m. mass. The sun was not out but there was still enough noontime glare to make me squint. At first, I wasn’t sure if I saw the iridescence because the mere idea of dragonflies was bizarre and fleeting in the pollution of downtown Cebu.

It was no trick of the eye, though. A dragonfly, its wings like a shimmering bolt of silk, hovered then flitted above the simmering granite ground. A few minutes later, a butterfly traced a lemon-colored swath in this most unlikely of gardens.

Were these drawn to the flowers carpeting the altar and draping the walls? Or to something else, an intangible garden of flowering faith?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s January 16, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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