Wednesday, April 1, 2009

An Unlikely Hero

HE was Albert Einstein’s namesake. No less a hero but no celebrity was he. I would have been deeply honored to meet him. But when I did meet him it was too late. He was already in a coffin, waiting to be buried.

It all started when I came home to the rectory from two Sunday Masses and two sick calls. I just wanted to take a nap and forget the world for a while. But I heard some gentle knocking on my door. I wanted to say, “Please leave me alone for a while. I have to get some rest.” But I soon noticed I was dragging myself to the door. It was then that I saw this lady who behaved rather strangely.

She left her slippers on the rectory stairs. I realized it was a gesture of courtesy. Simple barrio courtesy. “It’s just about Albert, Padre,” she said. “Please allow us to bury him today. We couldn’t afford to have him embalmed for the nine-day wake (as is the local custom). Neighbors contributed pieces of wood and slab for his coffin. Please, Padre. We only have two hundred pesos. May we have a Mass for him, please?”

“Of course,” I said. Actually I just wanted to get rid of her and get my much needed rest. “Bring him at two o’ clock this afternoon.” Then she haltingly started to tell a story that woke me up the rest of the day.

Albert was her fourteen-year-old nephew from Barangay San Mateo. He was the eldest of five children. His father, a rice farmer, didn’t come up with much in this year’s harvest. And while his mother also does other jobs, such as washing laundry and selling vegetables, the family income was not enough. So he did what he thought best. He stopped schooling and got himself a job in a local bakery. He ended up mostly by the firewood-fed oven. It was tough and the heat could sometimes be unbearable. But he couldn’t and wouldn’t complain. He was glad he could work and help the family. But his body was not superman’s. Recently he ran a fever and felt weak. He asked to be excused. But his employer threatened to dismiss him if he misses work, especially that it was two or three days before the month’s end. Albert naturally didn’t want to lose his job and decided to go on working. He made it to payday. He brought all his money home and having given it to his mother, said: “Now I just want to rest and sleep…”

Albert never woke up again.

As I presided over his funeral I was both angry and depressed. “How could any human being threaten someone not even qualified yet to work to fire him just because he was sick?” But other deeper questions were raging in my mind. How could a young man with such obvious love for his family, a young man with such promise fall into a fate as cruel as Albert’s? How could his parents be powerless to even consider seeking for justice? I searched the faces of Albert’s mother and father. I saw in them anything but protest. Both have now accepted Albert’s fate as inevitable. Both now eyed me with profound gratitude for giving him a sung funeral Mass for two hundred pesos. Never have I felt so depressed over a funeral.

But I found myself continuing my homily. “Albert expresses, oh yes, Albert continues the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. And we are all witnesses to this. The world, much less his country, has no idea that he did. But we do. But God does. And it’s all that matters. Albert has made it clearer to us what the sacrifice we celebrate during Lent is all about. May his sacrifice give his family more life the way the sacrifice of Jesus brought us a sharing in the life of God.”

I glanced at the faces of Albert’s brothers and sisters. They seemed calm. But one thing bothered me. They seemed to say to me: “Father, we know Lent. When do we know Easter?”

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