Lost in Traslacion

‘A merciful, kind, and loving God does not call that one loses oneself and physically suffer for the world to see or be a catalyst for his neighbors to be in agony.’

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WHEN I was little, there’s a feast in our old neighborhood in the country’s financial capital that we tirelessly observed after the New Year celebration has died down.

Dressed in scarlet t-shirts with the supposed image of Jesus Christ at the center, jubilant, high-spirited men in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties talked about their strategies on how to get closer to the ‘Poon’ during the ‘Traslacion’- the transfer of the black image of Jesus Christ from San Nicolas de Tolentino in Intramuros to the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo in Manila.

“You should be the lead since you’re the strongest” one of them said.

“What if we line up this way?” another one added. “Will this work?”

It was intense. Such mood enraptured my imagination. It was as if they’d go into a war like seasoned soldiers only that they’re not allowed to bring anything with them. And yes, no slippers and shoes on.

I expressed my desire to join the euphoria but I was turned-down right away. I was only seven years old.

“It’s not for children” Mang Kaloy said, who’s one of their most vocal leaders. “Just play basketball.”

On the day of the festivity, the footages of the coverage of news organizations disturbed me when I saw them the first time.

Cavalcade of devotees. Wiping of the cross or foot of the image with a cloth. Shouts. Cries. Emergency. Difficulty in breathing. Heart attack. Stretchers. Casualties. Death.

Chaos was all over. Everybody wanted to have a grip of the cord of Black Nazarene. And then, as my mind wandered, I got lost. Is this what Catholic faith looks like? Is this what God wants to happen?

If we’ll look at the Traslacion 2018 data, one devotee died and as many as eight hundred were injured. Can’t you imagine the total number of casualties since this activity started? These may just be mere figures for some, but these require a closer examination.

When our youngest brother told me four years ago that he’d continue the devotion of my deceased father to the Black Nazarene, a hollow deep inside me resurfaced into my consciousness. Suddenly, my childhood horrors to this brutal affair all came back in my memory like a boomerang that successfully stitched all the gaps of the years that have elapsed.

“Isn’t it too dangerous?” I told him. “Can you just not join them?”

“No, kuya” my brother said. “It’s for tatay.”

But is it biblical?

In Deuteronomy 5:7-9 (King James Version), it says: “Thou shalt have none other gods before me. Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me,.”

If the main basis of the Catholic faith is the Bible, why then are they continuously transgressing such commandment? Clearly, the Black Nazarene is a graven image or an idol as described by the holy scriptures.

Or at least, can’t the leadership of the Catholic church in our country impose regulations and guidelines to its members for a safer execution of ‘Traslacion’? If the everyday challenge of riding our trains can be controlled, a once-a-year event such as this can be solved.

In an ABS-CBN News report dated January 9, 2018, in relation to the statements given by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, it stated: “’May our participation in the different activities during the feast lead us in deeply knowing Jesus, Tagle was quoted as saying by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) News on Monday. Reflecting on this year’s theme ‘Black Nazarene: The way, the truth, and the life’, he also called on the faithful take a closer look at Christ. ‘He is the way to the father. He is the truth that we’ve been looking for. He is the one who can give us and the society life.’”

In the end, we should as a society search for a better way. We should search for truth and practice our faith without compromising others. We can’t just be silent observers of an annual savage religious activity where millions of lives are on the line. For our relatives, for our friends, and for our fellowmen. A merciful, kind, and loving God does not call that one loses oneself and physically suffer for the world to see or be a catalyst for his neighbors to be in agony.

Let’s preserve life and don’t let the scarlet shirts the barefooted devotees are wearing be their last.

Waiting for and praying to Santa

‘In a chaotic time rife with hypocrisy, deceit, and insincerity, there is no better currency to give to another soul, more importantly to the youth and our children, than the truth about spirituality and faith.’

WHEN I was little, there was one night my childhood friends and I have always waited for. Each year, on Christmas eve, we would hang a sock outside our windows before we go to sleep. I thought that if I’ll pray hard enough to Santa Claus, I would wake up on Christmas morning with my wishes and my dreams granted. And if I was good enough and if the hanging sock won’t be enough to contain all the candies and chocolates and toys that he’ll give out of his good heart, he would replace it with a magical bag with remarkable presents. It never happened. Worse, I thought that he was unfair.

After learning that one of my friends had received way better and more special gifts, such as Playstation and bicycle, than I did, I doubted his love and compassion. Shouldn’t he be considerate to everyone?

And then on the third year of patiently waiting to finally see him, to talk to him, and wondering why he made those decisions in the past, I discovered he doesn’t exist.

Covered in bedding, I stayed up until 3 AM. I stared outside the window in the lone room at the second floor of our house with my eyes partially open. It’s the 25th of December. And little by little my mother, who I thought was soundly sleeping next to me, moved closer to the window and slowly put something in the sock. In a cold Christmas morning, I have met my Santa. No, we did not talk and she did not notice me looking at her. I went to sleep and she embraced me.

This truth came to me as a surprise. But don’t we give Santa Claus, a portly, blithesome, white-bearded imaginary character – sometimes with spectacles – clothed with scarlet coat, too much credit?

Some of us tell our children that they should behave themselves if they want Santa to reward them with gifts on Christmas. While this motivates them to be more cautious and responsible about their actions, we lie to them. We make them believe on something that isn’t true, to a fictional man, who they thought has the capacity to know everything they did all year round to judge whether they are worthy or not. Why do we do this?

As a Catholic nation, we have been exposed to a culture copious with questionable teachings and traditions. From the true date of the birth of Jesus Christ to the manner by which we request saints to pray for our sins and transgressions, we’re deemed clueless. In a Catholic prayer titled Hail Mary, it said: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Again, “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Doesn’t it mean that we ask Mary, the mother of the flesh of Jesus Christ, to pray for us? Isn’t there a disconnect between asking a dead person do something for the living? Can the saints help to alleviate our sins and intercede for us? Should we call on other names for us to be forgiven from the unrighteous acts we had committed?

Shielding kids from some truths they can’t process is one thing. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, of faith, and of God, it’s a deprivation of a valuable fact if we’re not going to teach them to directly offer their prayers and thanksgiving to the almighty Father in heaven and not to anybody else. In Philippians 4:6-7 (New International Version), it says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Santa Claus with his sleigh lead by eight reindeers does not have the capacity to know what we’re doing but God does for His eyes are everywhere. In Proverbs 15:3 (NIV), it says: “The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.”

If we’re to take God’s place for a moment, won’t we get jealous? Because instead of praising Him, the world, in vicious normalcy, replaced Him in the children’s young minds and hearts with an invented figure, a different name. Deuteronomy 5:7-9 (NIV) says: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…”

Neither Paul nor Mary let another human being pray to them. The angels Gabriel and Michael also followed such principle in the Bible. How then can Santa hear our children’s prayers? Aren’t we observing centuries-old traditions for enjoyment, entertainment, and convenience even if we have no idea on their historical and factual background?

In a chaotic time rife with hypocrisy, deceit, and insincerity, there is no better currency to give to another soul, more importantly to the youth and our children, than the truth about spirituality and faith. Gone are the days of being prisoners of the past. If we, the adults, the parents, and the grown-ups are not going to start this revolution deep within us and not stop ourselves from just following the flow without raising questions, who would?

And the recognition of that truth and path is going to be so much more significant to me than what any Santa can present whether he came down from a chimney or not on a cold December morning.

Spirited Away

“It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.”

WEEKS AFTER my father passed away when I was in grade school, I raised a question to our catechist, Ms. Y: “Where does a spirit go after a person dies?” My classmates and I were then sitting on the steps in front of a Catholic church in the financial capital. Ms. Y responded: “Ben, he’s in heaven with God. He’s watching over you. Pray to him every time.” Still baffled, I followed up with more questions: “But will he be bothered if he sees me getting low scores or failing grades, or unable to submit projects on time because of his absence? Does that mean that the dead still think about us, the living? Do they still have problems in heaven, a supposed worry-free paradise?”

At a loss for answers, she moved on with her discussion. But I did not.

In this Catholic nation, it’s instilled in the majority that we should observe Undas, a holiday where families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and light candles on the graves of their loved ones, to honor them.

I still vividly remember how every year after my father’s death, I took on the task of repainting his grave a week before the holiday at the Manila South Cemetery. With a small towel covering my nose to avoid inhaling the vapors from the white paint, I gleefully sang to my father some Fernando Poe Jr. songs, to bond with him, to reminisce on the old days, to feel his presence. FPJ, known as “the King of Philippine Cinema,” was his favorite actor.

After painstakingly removing the wild grass that had grown around his grave, I talked to him, whispered my dreams that I hoped he’d help me realize, and asked him to guard and guide us, especially my mom who had to take on the gargantuan role of being father and mother of the family after he left.

It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.

Years later, I questioned everything.

As a once devoted and proud Catholic, I became more inquisitive about things of the spirit, religion, faith, and the Bible when I entered college. After rereading Jose Rizal’s novels, “El Filibusterismo” and “Noli Me Tangere,” confusion plagued my mind. Rizal is our national hero but I wondered why most of us don’t heed his words. We even have “Rizal” as a required subject in tertiary education, to delve deeper and study his life and works, to learn from him, to inculcate in us the virtues of an exemplar of Filipino brilliance and excellence. But do we understand him? Have we realized the principal reason he was banished, with all his might and courage, from the face of the earth, which we commemorate every Dec. 30? Are we blind to historical facts?

On page 72 of the “Noli,” Rizal wrote: “But now, let’s see how the idea of Purgatory, which is absent from both the Old and the New Testaments, became Catholic doctrine. Neither Moses nor Jesus Christ make the slightest mention of Purgatory…” Yes, purgatory is never mentioned in the Bible. A quick search in your electronic Bible can prove this to you. The question then is: Where did the doctrine of purgatory come from?

What about the scrapping of the doctrine of limbo by then Pope Benedict XVI when he authorized the Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission on April 22, 2007, to publish a 41-page document titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized”? In an article written in Rome for Telegraph.co.uk, Nick Pisa reported: “Babies who die before being baptized will no longer be trapped in Limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.”

Why do we have to light some candles, thick and thin, big and small, during Undas? Why do some Catholics steal and disrespectfully recycle the very candles of their fellow Catholics that are believed to illuminate the path for their deceased? Why are we made to believe that our departed loved ones are guarding and guiding us from heaven? Isn’t it true that the dead know nothing, as what’s written in Ecclesiastes 9:5 (New International Version), “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten”?

For hundreds of years people have been made to believe in doctrines that have no basis in the Bible. Worse, these are just invented teachings that go against the principles of truth and justice. But to no surprise, when I brought this up to the other members of my Catholic family, they were caught uninformed. Because of fear for our souls to be condemned, we grew up following our leaders without testing or asking them, and, like a sail in a vast ocean with no map, GPS tracker, or a virtuoso captain to follow, we’re clueless on why we practice or celebrate centuries-old traditions.

While it is true that we’re a democracy and that our Constitution protects our freedom to choose and practice a religion, it is time to rethink our stand and course. We’re living in a world where access to information is encouraged—something nonexistent when the greatest Filipino who ever lived challenged those in authority in his time using his proverbial pen as his sword. Yes, there’s fake news. Yes, deception is rampant. Yes, it’s an uphill battle to get to the bottom of things. But today, more than ever, we have a duty to get to the truth, for veracity to shine, not just for other people but for our own sake—for our souls.

The choice is in our hands.

And with God’s grace and mercy, someday I hope to talk to my father again. No, not in this world, not next to his grave, or while sitting in front of another Ms. Y, but with the almighty Father in heaven, in his paradise.

(This piece has been published in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Op-Ed section – Young Blood – on the 31st of October, 2017.)