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Christmas spirit

Publication Date : 12-12-2013

 

Frankly, I don’t know why Philippine President Benigno Aquino III didn’t go and join the other heads of state to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela.

Never mind that he would have been in the company of three US presidents, current and ex, as well as 70 other heads of state, which would have made it an Apec of sorts with all the opportunities it offers. Never mind that we would have won much goodwill with the host country and the world, which could help open ears for our diplomatic overtures, or pleas, particularly in light of our spat with China. Mind only that the visit would have changed our perception of things, or at least make us reconsider old ones. Mind only that it would have opened our eyes to the true meaning of power.

Look how even the United States, the mightiest nation on the planet, has gone to pay obeisance to the one person it continued to officially regard, until 2008, as a terrorist—a distinction Mandela earned for advocating and leading the violent overthrow of the apartheid regime. It was only in 2008 that the United States belatedly and ashamedly removed his name from the list. And now it has sent three presidents to honour him at a memorial service—Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter (George W. Bush is not with them for fear of being ushered to an early resting place). And now it has flown its flag at half-staff all over the country in his honor—a thing it did only for Winston Churchill and Pope John Paul II.

That is one very forceful lesson in power.

Which we would do very well to learn. I myself have been astonished and dismayed this past week by our lack of attention, or even interest, in the passing of this modern-day Moses, a person who led his people from a horrendous, plague-ridden, oppression-stricken, land through the wilderness to the Promised Land. And drew the world along with him. Some of us have been more assailed by the death of Paul Walker, star of the Fast and Furious series who became the quick and the dead from racing a car down a nonraceable street.

Of course we have our share of things to mourn. Tacloban is one of them—a natural disaster that has turned into a national tragedy, the daunting task of rehabilitation driven home by the homeless Taclobanons teeming in Metro Manila today, trying as best they can to muster whatever cheer they can for Christmas. And of course we have our own heroes, too, people to admire and emulate and hold up to the world, handog ng Pilipino sa mundo. Cory, architect of People Power, is chief of them.

But at the very least, why should the one preclude the other? Why should our need to look after our needs and soothe our hurts and light candles to remember our dead crowd out the need to do the same thing for others? The one does not lessen the other, it augments it. The one does not impoverish the other, it enriches it.

At the very most, it’s time we showed our qualification to join the ranks of the global community, to become part of the human community.
If our apathy, if not scorn, vis a vis Mandela’s passing shows anything, it is how isolated, how removed, how remote we are from that community. A strange thing to say about a people who see themselves as exceedingly global, having been driven like “wandering Jews” all over the globe. And whose aptitude for communications technology gives them a sense of being globalisation’s modern-day explorers.

Yet that is what we are at bottom: We are isolated, by barriers we ourselves have put up. Everything in the world we see only through the prism of America. That does not make us global, that makes us insular. That does not make us cosmopolitan, that makes us parochial.

Indeed, if our apathy, if not scorn, vis a vis Mandela’s passing shows anything, it is how little we grasp the truth, or spirit, of Christianity. Again, a strange thing to say about the only predominantly Christian country in Asia, and one given to long, devoted, and often raucous celebrations of Christmas.

But what is the story of Christmas, really? It is the story of one who was born to impoverished and marginalised folk, so poor and down-and-out they couldn’t afford a roof in the wintry night the mother had to birth her son in a stable for animals. But who drew the world to that birth, or those of the world that had the eyes to see. The child himself would grow up to conquer the world, in the ways of the spirit at least if not of the flesh.

What is the story of Mandela, really? The guy himself would have laughed at the thought of lugging around a halo, let alone one that glowed with an otherworldly sheen. He always cringed at being depicted as a saint, he was just a man, he said, as deeply flawed as any other man, who tried to do what was right as best he could divine it, who strove to do what needed to be done as best he could do it. But what a man, drawn from the loins of a marginalized and oppressed race who rose to change the world. What a man, persecuted, jailed and reviled, who rose to conquer the world, in the ways of the spirit at least if not of the flesh.

It was not his birth but his death that summoned the world like a guiding star to the heart of Africa. Or like a chorus of angels in the form of fantastic singers giving an African version of soul and gospel. There were the Three Kings in the form of the three presidents of a distant land called America bearing speeches in lieu of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And there were the other leaders serving as shepherds and sundry sheep, the world’s most powerful men and women come to bow before a simple man, a self-effacing man, a lowly man. And in the magical moment turned to children once more, laughing and taking “selfies” of themselves.

The Christmas spirit doesn’t come more dazzlingly than that.

 

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