Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas and Sendong

As of the moment, the numbers continue to rise, with 650 dead and several hundreds still missing. Thousands left homeless, and the local government and agencies trying to respond as best as they could to the drama that continues to unfold. The photos convey more vividly what the papers had communicated: entire communities of shanties and dwellings of the poor crushed by the brutal onslaught of the winds and the rising waters, people wandering about, most half clad, many for whom the clothes on their backs where the only thing they could bring with them in time. however the photo that gave the tragedy a face—and which had done its rounds in the Internet—was that of a disconsolate father clutching his dead child to his breast.

One would think that some evil genius could have crafted this kind of thing to happen, when people were most vulnerable, during the night, in their sleep. Of all the seasons in the year, one may be impelled to ask, why does this have to take place in the threshold of Christmas? I don’t think many would blame God for this, but I am certain that thousands upon thousands of voices are rising to the heavens, not in outrage against God, but expressing that question that has more than once issued from the human heart: WHY?

From my perch, thousands of miles away, despite of the great distance, the news affected us back here all the same. MAS DE 400 MUERTOS POR LAS INUNDACIONES Y LOS DESPRENDIMIENTOS DE TIERRA EN FILIPINAS, the headline in today’s paper read.

But let me go back to the thought that I had earlier tried to develop. I don’t think a lot of people would be seriously angry at God for this. Many would feel disillusioned, but I don’t think they would be seriously angry. The true question would be, both for the affected and the bereaved, why would He permit this to happen?

I won’t claim to know the answer. His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts like ours. But certainly I do believe that the proximity of the Christmas feast and this tragedy desired by none, not even by God give a new depth to the celebrations for which we are preparing ourselves. For weeks we have been gaily going about with the preparations for the season: buying gifts, planning parties, coming up with charitable initiatives, and doing ourselves spiritually in order to enter more into a meaningful celebration of Christmas. All of this is okay. Sometimes, however, the comfort and amenability of our stable situation could allow us to have a superficial appreciation of the message of the Christmas mystery. Christmas is none other than the mystery of the Incarnation, God-with-us, Emmanuel.

Seeing this entire rampage, wrought by the unfeeling brutality of nature, one may ask: were was God in all this? As one surveys the no-man’s land scenario, one could as well talk about the silence of God. Yesterday I sat down in the confessional in one of the parishes here in Pamplona. In one of the confessions, I remember saying to a particular penitent that in those times that God seems most silent, it is when he is most near. These words, whispered in the dimness of the confessional, came back to me as I pondered over this piece of news. Where was God? Though not immediately evident, one could come to this conviction: God was surely present, and so continues to be even more. He is present in the heart of the father who grieves for his lost child; He is most close to the family who is at a loss to see where they would be spending Christmas, as their shack had been destroyed; He is perceived in the good intentions of many people who sympathize with the affected and the bereaved, and is at the heart of every initiative to aid. In the miracle of the Incarnation, men tried to look for God where He was not to be found; they found Him in the most unexpected of places.

It is my guess that for many this Christmas is going to be very different. Yes, even the most ugly of all tragedies is capable of showing us the face of God, in the face of the pained, of the benevolent, of those who offer their hearts in prayer, of those who seek to be of help in anything. As they say, the darkness makes the light even brighter; this crude reality of tragedy allows us to appreciate Emmanuel even more: God-with-us, a God who is not impervious to our suffering, and has shared our human condition in order to make clear to us that we ought not to feel ourselves alone.

Merry Christmas.

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