Sometimes conversations linger in your mind. One did in mine. I mean the one I had with Lola Nena (not her real name) several Advents ago. She used to take care of a barangay chapel where I would celebrate Mass on schedule. I remember one rather murky Advent Sunday when I casually asked her a standard question after Mass: “Lola, what’s your Christmas going to be like?” I was caught off guard by her honesty. “Maluya, Padre…” ‘Maluya’ is the Waray’s way of saying “Nothing much”. But what struck me is what it literally means. It means ‘weak’, ‘vulnerable’. I don’t recall what I said to her but her word kept haunting me like a ghost past Halloween.
At first I thought of what she meant. That she didn’t have much money to celebrate the holidays by. That living alone and raising a grandchild almost single-handedly wasn’t exactly her idea of a ‘perfect Christmas’. That being virtually forgotten by her relatives who pretended she lived somewhere far (maybe, I thought to myself, for fear of being asked to play Santa Claus to her) and by her own children who themselves were struggling to survive in a place called Manila didn’t sound like ‘silver bells’ to her even when noisy carolers said so. That being made to subsist on what her children sent her—quite infrequently—and what she could eke out of selling ‘bibingka’ (rice cake) and ‘salokara’ (rice pancake) didn’t give much cause for singing ‘hosannas’ in celebration.
But in all this what I found even more baffling was, Lola Nena’s voice didn’t have any trace of complaining. To her everything was just a statement of fact fully noted, assessed and accepted. To her everything was said simply to answer my question.
Nonetheless, the word wouldn’t go away. In fact, it came back to me with the full force of impact not unlike a Manny Pacquiao’s left hook to the jaw (sorry for the analogy to non-boxing fans) when I saw the image of the baby Jesus being carefully placed on the crib during that Christmas Midnight Mass. Exactly. The baby Jesus struck me as ‘maluya’, as weak and vulnerable, just like Christmas as described by Lola Nena, just like Lola Nena herself and, if you wouldn’t mind, just like you and me, just like the rest of humanity.
Perhaps without meaning to, Lola Nena took me to the very heart of Christmas. The only Son of the Almighty God preferred to leave the inestimable power and glory of being at the Father’s side in order to share our weakness and vulnerability as creatures, as human beings, so he could later take us where we could share his life. Long ago it was heard that the God of Abraham was a God who loved Israel as a son. It never occurred to anyone that this God is Love itself. Nor did it dawn on sages and kings that this God didn’t just talk the talk. He also walked the walk. In fact, he walked the infinite distance between heaven and earth, between Godhead and humanity so we would have a glimpse of Love, his Love, that it is as real as the sun, the snow and the rain, as well as the joy and the pain of being human.
There were Christmases I spent in some places of opulent Europe and America as a student priest. But I must confess that I often missed the stark Christmas of Lola Nena. And I wondered why. I stumbled into an answer after one Christmas Midnight Mass in an Italian village as I watched people sang carols, shook hands while exchanging greetings and kisses, and disappeared into the night leaving behind a deafening silence. A thought crossed my mind. How easy it is to hide your weakness and vulnerability behind a multi-layered façade of efficiency, wealth, comfort, sense of power and self-sufficiency. How easy it can be to make the crib just a piece of decoration when you think you need nothing, unmindful of having received everything.
To me Lola Nena’s assessment of her Christmas nearly equaled the experience of being inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and being shown by the tour guide the place where Jesus, according to tradition, was born. I was shocked to find myself in a cave-like compartment so small, dingy, damp and remarkably unimpressive. “Maluya,” as Lola Nena would say.
The bottom line is: Love isn’t love unless it makes us weak and vulnerable, just as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity had become. The shining testament of Love isn’t a Taj Mahal or a Palace in the Sky. It is a baby so weak and vulnerable he knows what you go through when you are hungry, tired or thirsty, when you are full of energy and happy, when you are sad or lonely.
No wonder God loves the weak and vulnerable. He used to be one himself. No wonder we should also love the weak and vulnerable. We love ourselves in them. Nay, we love our God in loving them.
Have yourself a blessed little Christmas!