THE BELEN is new, my friend Nena told me when we saw each other before a late morning mass at Redemptorist Church.
I don’t hear mass regularly. When I do, I like the experience. Like anything that’s not part of routine, I seek out and am always never disappointed by the occasion.
Redemptorist along my alma mater is a favorite. The presiding priests are punctual, clear-spoken and sober. The homily, said during Wednesday novena, is brief and substantial, proof someone spent time thinking, writing and rewriting. A good homily is rare these days when the pulpit becomes a stage for a joke, a harangue, a call to arms.
And this church fully accounts for its collections: how much, who benefits.
My reasons for hearing mass and my habit of seeking out certain churches don’t jibe with Nena’s.
My friend hears mass regularly in this church. Ever since I knew her, she walks every morning from her home to sit at the same spot in what must be the same pew for years. Only sheets of rain driven by strong winds through the wide doors make her move to the center pews. No storm, personal or otherwise, has kept her away.
Nena is not alone. Many faces have become familiar over the years. Whenever I see them, I am reminded that the church is a community, not just an edifice.
Nena was on my mind when I argued with my professor about the existence or myth of the Catholic vote. He spoke vehemently against the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), equating dwindling church attendance with the weakening of its hold.
Though it is impossible for me to muster even a spark of passion for that brood of obstructionists, I countered that Manila and Cebu differ in their pattern of church attendance. Even when holy days of obligation fall on working days, the churches here don’t just draw a clutch of parishioners, plus a gaggle of tourists and churchgoers like me who drop by for convenience.
Yet, I am hesitant to equate full and groaning pews with the obeisance and compliance equated with the so-called Catholic vote. The strength of the church is not in the dominion of the few over the collective but the exercise of conscience by each of the faithful.
Not expecting but not also surprised to see the familiar white-tressed figure at her usual pew, I sat beside Nena. We caught up with each other’s stories. She told me about the repair of the church roof. Water stains can still be seen in the vaulted ceiling. Watermarked columns, the rot of age: the corporeal form of the church, not just her human dimension, betrays how time leaves no one unchanged.
If Nena had not pointed out the new belen, I would not have noticed. Still located on the left side of the altar, facing the assembly, a hut, not the cave of past years, is now the Nativity setting. These are just incidentals framing the essential: a child, a family, a community.
It makes me pause that a birth that took place more than 2,000 years ago still affects the world. In a Santa Monica park in Los Angeles, the diorama depicting Christ’s birth has been edged out by atheists and a judge’s decision to uphold religious freedom.
According to an Associated Press report carried in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 22, 2012 issue, no room can be found this year for the baby Jesus after atheists nearly cornered all the booths at the Palisade Park.
Their displays included a sign quoting Thomas Jefferson who believed all religions to be founded on “fables and mythologies,” a greeting for “Happy Solstice,” and a display honoring the great Flying Spaghetti Monster, founder of the “Pastafarian religion”.
Watching the new belen framed by signs of seepage and rot, I pray future generations will be able to pick out Jesus from a line-up of usual suspects: Poseidon, Santa Claus, Lucifer and Big Bird.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 23, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column