Belen – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Years ago, a religious community had a made-to-order Belen from Paete, semi-life-sized, kalahati ko. It had an interesting takeaway. The characters were carved to look likereal people. The Magi looked like 3 priests. Two shepherds looked like a cardinal and a major benefactor. They put a midwife there and a married couple, also representing major benefactors. One angel looked like the carver’s son; the other two, benefactors’ daughters. Uhmm, I personally found the Belen unsettling (and I stress personally, because what I think doesn’t really matter). First of all, most of the represented were still alive. Secondly, would they’ve even relished being honored with such a privileged place in salvation history, kahit pa-Belen lang? Because, I knew them to be very humble people. Third, my overall question was, “Baket?” Maganda, interesting, pero… baket?

But see, dear sisters, that was nothing, compared to the worse scandals in the real Nativity 2,021 years ago. At alamnatin ang mga eskandalong ito kasi nag-theology naman tayonglahat kahit papa’no. Let me cite three of several scandals. First, “when Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was with child.” O, isipin natin: dalaga natingpamangkin, halimbawa. Lumalaki ang tiyan, pero di pa nagsasama o kasal ni boypren. What do we feel about thattoday? Itago ‘yan kay Marites! Nakakahiya. Second, let’s say,‘yung boypren ang pamangkin natin, at malaman-laman natinna ‘di pala kanya ang binubuntis ng gelpren. Wouldn’t you, TitaMadre, be the first to tell him, “Hoyst, hiwalayan mo ‘yan. Hindi mo ‘yan pananagutan”? And Joseph knew this, remember? He was so hell-bent at breaking off the engagement, God had to fly an angel in to tell him, “Johssep, don’t.” Third, kung ‘di silanagpapigil; hindi na nga legitimate ang anak, aba’y at least man lang, ang place of birth legitimate, ‘no? Reputable, decent. Kasi ang pakainan ng hayop, kahit ipalinis pa ‘yan at ipa-decorate samga madre, pakainan pa rin ng hayop. The birth of God’s Son deserves, no, demands, deliberateness. ‘E ngayon nga, sisters, ‘di ba, kapag inabutan ang buntis sa taxi o sa tricycle, nawiwindang na tayo, at medyo natatawa. Pakainan pa ng hayop? In other words, Jesus’ birth was just dripping from the mire of possible scandals, inconceivable esp. from the belvedereof religion, of Judaism. Bethlehem was rife with the frightfulscandals of impurity, sisters: bodily, sexual, marital impurity.

Could God have arranged for his Incarnation to happen in incontrovertible conditions? Sure. Sa mag-asawa sana siyaipinanganak. Naghintay sana siyang ikasal sina Jose at Maria o magsama man lang bago siya nabuo sa sinapupunan. Minani-obra man lang sana niya ang mga ganap, para hindi nag-emergency delivery sa pakainan ng hayop o kung saan. But for some strange reason, God did not edit, did not photoshop Belen.If we were back in Israel as devout Jews, a birth like that forfeited any credibility of being the least Messianic. Dalagangina, pendehong asawa, anak sa labas: Messianic?

Sisters, napansin n’yo ba? We, religious, we’re united against impurity scandals in our schools, households, families, Church. We have one voice. But when it comes to the equallyscandalous, if not more horribly scandalous which may not have anything to do with purity, hatí tayo. We’re split. Kahit kasingsama o mas masahol pa sa impurity ang eskandalo, we do not have the one voice to shout down the scandal. Extra-judicial killings and the leaders behind them, for example; hatí tayo ‘jan; treason: compromising our patrimony to Chinese military. We’re split on that. These days, government doesn’t know where to look for the billions to rebuild Odette-ravaged provinces. Why did they allow swindlers to get away without taxes in billionswhich they could’ve deployed precisely for natural and health disasters? How much national debt could be paid if the Marcoses were fully prosecuted to cough up what they stole?When it comes to these scandals, sisters, we, religious, cannot seem to find the one voice to shout them down and shut them down. There are scandals much uglier than impurity we otherwise turn a blind eye to, a deaf ear, even when we knowvery well that they are equally, if not more demonic, than personal, sexual, martial impurities.

When Christ-child grew up, look what he did. Pinamukhaniya sa religious authorities that they should be fixing far worse scandals in their ranks, more than fuss and fret over people’s ritual impurities. There was Temple corruption. There was collaboration with enemy Rome. Taxes and lagay were crippling the already poor, reducing them to homelessness and begging. They died on the streets! There was stealing, power abuse,systematic murder, all under God’s nose! If the Philippines were a Belen, it would also be an eerie replica of the scandals in Jesus’ Israel. Then and now, crimes against human life and justiceare equally, if not more demonic, than the impurity scandals we, religious, shudder at together.

We won’t be able to find that one voice, dear sisters, if the people we’re drawn to are personalities, whether they’re good or evil. (And by the way, for me, personally, the election will be a choice not just between candidates, but a choice between good and evil. Again, I emphasize personally because what I say doesn’t really matter.) As long as we’re drawn to personalities, sisters, we won’t be able to shout down & shut down the real and bigger scandals we should be fighting. That’s why a Belen, our humble Belen, our quiet, gentle, prayerfully assembled Belen? It’s such an important fixture in all our Christmases, sisters. ABelen draws all of us, together, to gaze at the person in the middle of it all, the only person who should be the only standard, the only norm, the only criterion for all our choices:Jesus of Nazareth, our beloved Scandal of a Messiah, he alone. So, come let us adore him.

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