Nonfiction by | December 21, 2008

The full moon shone pale through thin clouds, diffusing its glow. The faces of the people looked peaceful and solemn in the subdued light of the many-colored lanterns that lined the sides of Lourdes Church in Quezon City. The priest’s voice echoed from hidden speakers and was thunderous, like the foreboding voice of God, but I did not see his face because I was standing in the adjacent car park. From outside, I could see empty pews, but more parishioners than what I thought was usual had gathered to listen and to pray.

The evening was chilly. One could almost imagine that the church, the streets, the shabby souvenir shops and donut chains, and all the rest of Manila were air-conditioned. The leaves of the fruitless trees beside the adoration chapel rustled gently, and the seven o’clock sky was pink. Indeed, the weather is best come December. It doesn’t rain and it is never too hot.

Several weeks in practice and preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ, the choir was in perfect pitch. When the priest called on everyone to open their hands to heaven for the “Our Father”, they did not hesitate. A great chorus rose up, unrestrained, drifting through the open air like a strong memory – of seasons past, of songs sung, Masses attended and prayers whispered.

It used to be that on the several nights leading up to Christmas Day, I would join my parents and siblings at Banahaw Cultural Center on the outskirts of affluent New Manila. We would hear a quiet but elaborate Latin mass with Opus Dei’s associates and numeraries and supernumeraries and their families. A closed-circuit video camera inside the golden chapel broadcast the homily and the rituals to those who arrived after the meditation. Since I seldom received the Eucharist, I would watch the monitor instead. It was amusing to observe the self-conscious few who were at the focus of the camera; they were usually young people.

After the Mass, there would be cocktails and sweet pastries waiting outside in a small garden decorated with a constellation of yellow lights. In the garden, people would chat of things both casual and apostolic. But the get-togethers were quick since families always left early for more intimate celebrations at home.

That was Christmas as I celebrated it with my family.

In the past few years, I stopped going to church or to the Center to mark the holiday season even though a Filipino Christmas is as much religious as it is commercial. What did I miss? How much did miss? I cannot tell. Then, as now, my rebellion seemed misplaced.

I stayed in the car park for a few more minutes after the final hymn, content to hold to my views. By then the people were pouring out of the church. Family by family, they filed out, while the echoes of the song faded into the darkness.

Migs is a freelance writer who spends equal time between Davao and Manila.

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