A pamasko of P126.00 in two 20-peso bills, four 10-peso coins, and the rest in a jingling collection of loose change can be worth more than its weight in gold. Spaghetti served with banana ketchup sauce and diced Vienna sausages (because hotdogs are more expensive) can be the best Christmas dinner you will ever have. The only competition is from leftover pansit, cold and eaten from a plastic bag. How can all of these happen? Trite it may sound, but trivial it definitely is not: The true miracle of Christmas.
I don’t believe in dole-outs. I think they do nothing but undermine the value of hard work, promote laziness, and keep poor people poor. But the past three years, at a particular time, in a particular place, and in a particular context, I have made exceptions.
On Christmas Day, at 9:00 a.m, in the tambakan, in the garbage dump nearest Payatas Dos, there are people scavenging for scraps they can sell, or scraps they can eat. If you are picking through garbage on the morning of December 25, when most people are still asleep or tired from Christmas Eve festivities, then most probably, you did not celebrate the night before. If you are picking through garbage on the morning of December 25, then celebrating is the farthest thing from your mind. The only thing you are thinking of is survival.
There is no garbage collection on December 24. The last time the garbage trucks dumped “fresh” trash there would have been on December 23. The trash there must have already been sifted through with the “choice” junk gone. If you are picking through garbage on the morning of December 25, then you are not just poor. You are desperate.
But also, if you are picking through garbage on the morning of December 25, and not just going to your relatives or friends or complete strangers and asking for money, then you must value hard work. You may be poor, but you still have pride. And you certainly are not lazy.
The past three years, a group of friends and I have gone to the tambakan, to the garbage dump nearest Payatas Dos, on December 25 at 9:00 a.m. to invite those picking through the garbage to the Chapel of Sagrada Pamilya. We give one ticket per family, and tell them that only those with tickets will be allowed inside the chapel. They cannot bring their mothers or fathers or wives or husbands or children. We tell them to gather in the chapel by noon for a short program, which, from experience, never really gets to begin earlier than 1:00 pm. There is a short prayer service and reflection – no Mass because not all are Catholics. Then we feed them a simple lunch of pansit and bread. We distribute gift pails (not gift baskets because pails, though not as decorative, are more useful later on). And inside each pail are: a pack of ready-to-cook spaghetti noodles, instant spaghetti sauce (the sweet kind, of course), a can of corned beef and a can of Vienna sausages (so that they can add meat to the sauce), a bottle of banana ketchup (to extend the spaghetti sauce), and cheese – all the ingredients needed for a spaghetti dinner for five costing just P126.00. The idea is this: They may not have had noche buena, but they were surely going to have a nice Christmas spaghetti dinner.
The first Christmas I participated in this “dole-out,” I think I was more the receiver than the giver. I remember leading the short prayer and reflection and then blessing the simple pansit lunch. I ate with them and – this is still so clear in my mind – three mouthfuls of pansit into our meal, many stopped eating. I asked them if there was anything wrong with the pansit. They said no, and then started asking for plastic bags. I asked them, “What for?” And they said they wanted to bring something home to their families. I told them not to worry because we would give them something to bring home. But they said they also wanted their families to taste the pansit. I asked them, “But aren’t you hungry?” This was around almost 2:00 p.m., and we were sure that they had not eaten anything before. But they only said, “Our families must be hungrier. We’ve had enough.”
There in front of me were hungry people not thinking of their own hunger but keeping in mind those who might be hungrier. I looked down at my plate. I – who had some merienda before – had almost finished my own pansit with nary a thought of anyone else.
On the ninth day of Simbang Gabi last year, the day before we did this a third time, I shared this story as part of my homily in another area in Payatas. I used it as an anecdote to make a point about generosity and not to solicit donations. This was still Payatas after all. But after the Mass, a group of manangs came to me with something wrapped in that day’s missalette and said, “P126.00. The people in our pew pooled our money together. We want to sponsor one spaghetti dinner.” Tactless me, I said, “No, no, no. You’re also poor.” They only smiled and said, “But we have been so blessed this year. We want to thank God by sharing our blessings.”
There in front of me were poor people proclaiming how blessed they were and how much they wanted to give from their blessings. I had more than P126.00 in my wallet at that time. I actually did not need any money because I was going to get picked up by the community L-300. But I would have never thought of giving away my P126.00. I guess those manangs made a better point about generosity than I did.
I saved my favorite story for last. The first time we did this, we were not that organized. We were not really able to come up with the complete spaghetti package – just some canned goods and ketchup. So we threw in some old clothes. At the last minute, a 79-year-old benefactor gave me P 1000.00 with the instruction: “Buy apples.” I tried to convince him that canned goods would go a longer way. He insisted, “Buy apples.” So much for the wisdom of old age, I thought.
At the end of our short program, we asked the people to line up. We distributed the canned goods. They nodded their thank-yous. We gave them the old clothes. Again, they nodded their thank-yous. Then we handed them an apple each. And their eyes lit up as they said, “Merry Christmas!”
It took me smiling face after smiling face to realize how wise our old benefactor was. Canned goods are more practical. Apples are an extravagance. But Christmas is not just about practicality. It is about the generosity of an extravagant God. On that first Christmas, He could have just sent another prophet or perhaps a winged messenger to deliver His message. An earthshaking event or the sky falling down might have driven His points more efficiently. But instead, God went beyond beyond. Trite it may sound, but trivial it definitely is not: On that first Christmas, He sent us the Apple of His Eye.
This homily has appeared in the book Words from the Shepherds, Words from the Sheep.