The evening was slightly windy. The facade of the cathedral shone with lights that traced its edges, doors and windows. Worshippers in their best outfits flocked into the house of prayer, though others chose to sit on the plastic chairs arranged in the churchyard.
There was time to pray before the Mass set to start at nine o’clock. We occupied the third pew from the back of church’s right wing. “Silent Night” blared through the speakers. A steady breeze blew in from the western door. Mother knelt to pray the rosary. Those who talked with each other spoke in hushed tones that were punctuated by the sounds of babies and children brought along by their parents.
Altar boys rang their hand-carry bells promptly at nine. The choir led the singing of Msgr. Rodolfo Villanueva’s “Bitoon sa Langit (Star of Heaven).” The sacristans walked down the central aisle to the altar, followed by lectors, psalmists, priests and bishops garbed in the Christmas white, the liturgical white that replaced Advent’s purple, the white that links the peoples of today to the kingdoms of yesterday which hung purple cloths everywhere and replaced them with white ones when an absent king finally arrived.
The people crossed themselves as Mass began. I had expected the Kalenda to be sung. This song that spoke of the number of years that went by between key events in biblical and world history such as Creation, the Flood, the Exodus and so on up until the birth of the Savior. But Christmas would not be Christmas without any surprise. This time, instead of the reading of the Kalenda that replaced the act of contrition, we witnessed the blessing of the Belen and a procession of children dressed as angels and others in traditional Filipino clothing to the solo singing of “Silent Night”. A boy carried the image of the baby Jesus for which Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma waited in the sanctuary. All the while “Silent Night” was sung by a lady soloist. The boy gave the image to the bishop who intoned the Gloria as he held it aloft to the clapping of the faithful and their singing of the ancient song that carries lyrics sung to shepherds by the Christmas angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Hundreds of star-shaped lanterns, earlier darkened, lit up the cathedral, starting with the nativity tableau by the altar all the way to the barriers of the balconies. The Gloria that was sung, also penned by Monsignor Villanueva carried Cebuano words that translate as “His people rejoice now, the divine peace has to earth come down.”
In his homily, the archbishop spoke about the angel that announced Jesus Christ’s birth to the shepherds with the command “Do not be afraid.” These words, the he said, are also for the people of today who face deadly tragedies such as storms, floods and fires. It was hard not to think of those who perished in the wake of storms Urduja and Vinta and in the fire that struck a mall down in Davao City. Archbishop Palma also said that Christmas is all about responding to those who need our help and he called on the flock to spare some of their resources for those who had fallen victim to the storms.
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Around a dozen children sang “Feliz Navidad” outside our neighbor’s house. Evening was pleasant on the first day of Christmas. The setting sun tinged the world with a soft golden light.
It was six o’clock when the jeep I rode passed the church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva. The choir’s singing of “Joy to the World” echoed into the street.
The saint was the patron of my Grade 5 class in Colegio del Santo Niño. It was long after I graduated, however, that I read something from him, which is worth digesting this Christmas season.
“If you want God to hear your prayers,” he said, “hear the voice of the poor. If you wish God to anticipate your wants, provide those of the needy without waiting for them to ask it from you. Especially anticipate the needs of those who are ashamed to beg. To make them ask for alms is to make them buy it.”
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Today is the third day of Christmas and the feast of Saint John, apostle and writer of the fourth gospel, the epistles of John and the book of Revelation. Do remember in your prayers the scribes who are under his patronage. They need light and security more than ever, considering how robots and those who spread fabrication are undermining their work and their continuing victimization by the violent. Note that the Philippines remains the most deadly place in Asia for journalists.
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