Star of hope

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

“Our Star” | Photo North60 via Creative Commons

One day not long ago, we were in March. I remember very well because of the excitement I carried after a special trip to Sulu. All trips to Sulu have always been of an adventure to me, no less. The last one was no exception and made more unique by visits to even more towns than I ever had. The beauty of Sulu amid danger always triggers excitement and adventure in me.

Today is Christmas Day, nine months, and two weeks after. What happened in between? What happened to time? What happened to life?

COVID-19 happened, that’s what. In early March, COVID-19 was like a movie that was about to be shown, the “Next Attraction” as the billboards would announce. By mid-March, it was “Now Showing.” Nine months later, it’s Christmas Day and the movie is still showing.

Christmas is the celebration of the greatest human feast – the sacrament of life. Christmas is like creation on live replay, birth, and rebirth personified by a newborn child. It is not the usual replay, though, because there is no staleness in Christmas, only hope and joy delivered like the first day of spring.”

But it is Christmas, nonetheless. The heavyweight of the COVID-19 pandemic, traumatic and intense as it has been, is not that overpowering to dismiss the celebration of Christmas. Thank goodness that it is so.

That we are in the heart of the Christmas season, the center of hope and joy for the Filipino people. Christmas is the celebration of the greatest human feast – the sacrament of life. Christmas is like creation on live replay, birth, and rebirth personified by a newborn child. It is not the usual replay, though, because there is no staleness in Christmas, only hope and joy delivered like the first day of spring.

And the timing is perfect. In my lifetime, which was able to miss the terrible World War II, the brutal foreign invasion of our country and its occupation by the invaders, I was not able to avoid the global pandemic in a most localized way. I know that the death and destruction of WWII cannot be undervalued. From the stories of my parents and their friends, their more than three years of experience are stuff for books and movie scripts.

“COVID-19 is uniquely destructive, too, although it has caused fewer deaths among Filipinos than in WWII. We have around 9,000 lives claimed by COVID-19 so far while an estimated 1 million Filipinos died in the last world war.”

COVID-19 is uniquely destructive, too, although it has caused fewer deaths among Filipinos than in WWII. We have around 9,000 lives claimed by COVID-19 so far while an estimated 1 million Filipinos died in the last world war. The pandemic has paralyzed the world and is sparing no country. Some have suffered much less than others, but everyone remains on the alert, knowing full well the contagion can erupt from simple carelessness. The world still walks on eggshells, so to speak.

Today, while we are still besieged by COVID-19, we are already discussing vaccines. In record time, human fear and ingenuity must have combined to trigger relentless vaccine development in many countries. The thought of vaccines represented hope in many, and the fact that a few are already being rolled out in an emergency mode feeds the hope inside people. Thus, perfect timing for Filipinos because Christmas is also here, our greatest hope provider of all time. For my generation and those who are younger, we have never needed to hope as much as we need to today.

The deadliest consequence of COVID-19 on Filipinos has been fear. Just to have an idea of how that fear has affected people is the report of SWS on how Filipinos feel about poverty and hunger. Respondents were asked to situate themselves on a chart with three choices – poor, borderline poor, and not poor. Only 16% had the confidence to claim they were not poor, only 16%. 36% considered themselves as borderline poor while 48% said they were poor. Fear has a lot to do with those feeling borderline poor.

Recovery needs confidence, and confidence is built on hope. Instances and expressions of hope must begin to dominate the landscape of the Philippines. And I believe that there is more hope today than three or four months ago. The evidence is the level of hunger incidences. In two months, they were cut in half. In the same two months, the economy was slowly opening and efforts in the private sector to help the hungry became dynamic, visible, and audible. Hope was seeded, and hope will be boosted again by the Christmas spirit.

The spirit of hope and joy brought by Christmas is not only the work of divinity. It is critically and materially delivered by the work of humanity – the humanity that cares. Nothing represents better the message of love that characterizes the Child of Christmas than human beings in great numbers allowing the hopeful and the joyful to define them – albeit temporarily. What the Child wanted to give has already been given – it was never kept, never hidden, never conditional.

“Fighting COVID-19 and fighting hunger and poverty is about fighting fear. Hope is the answer, hope with basis and not hope that is hyped. The false will bring more depression while the authentic will bring recovery, first to the spirit, and then all else will follow.”

Yet, humans who need to feel hope and to taste joy need other humans to show these to them, to share these with them. Humans need to understand on a human level, to experience teachings rather than read about them or be lectured on them. It is us, you and me, our empathy and our sympathy, our presence and human touch, that makes everything real to the human heart.

Many friends and I have worked unusually hard to give that empathy and sympathy to the hungry, in words and in deeds. Nothing delivers the message more succinctly than food. Food is the proof of the caring of others on the hungry. And that is what many of us have tried to do – contribute ourselves in whatever ways to deliver food on the table. We became like Christmas before the Christmas season. Or, perhaps, we intuitively learned that Christmas is not a season, it is all-season.

Fighting COVID-19 and fighting hunger and poverty is about fighting fear. Hope is the answer, hope with basis and not hope that is hyped. The false will bring more depression while the authentic will bring recovery, first to the spirit, and then all else will follow.

Let the darkness fade away; let us build the journey of hope. Today, Christmas Day, may the Child lead us to the way.

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