Inquirer Opinion / Columns
Commentary : The lesser gifts
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date: December 20, 2009
CAN we appreciate the great gift of Christmas if we fail to appreciate the hundreds of more ordinary gifts surrounding us every day?
Every child knows his or her name, for example, but there are many old men and women who no longer know their names or what they have done in life, or don’t remember whom they married, or their children’s faces. They would give the world to know themselves once again. An old Jesuit friend told me that when he wakes each morning, he thanks God for another day of life and another day of knowing who he is.
Water is something I, like most people, took for granted, until I went once with a reporter of Christian Aid to visit women along the R-10 road in Tondo. They had just managed to have metered water brought into their community. It cost only a third of what water once cost there. The reporter asked the women if the water had changed their lives. What a foolish question, I thought. How could water change a life? Then the women started talking.
“I can afford to shower every day now,” a woman said. “I feel clean for the first time in years.”
“Our house no longer smells. We take care of the toilet,” another woman told us.
Other comments came one after the other: “Now we can really wash the children and the vegetables.” “We can clean the house. Everything smells nice.” “We can clean the drain in front of the house.”
Finally a woman pointed to several drums of water that were stored near the water outlet. “We’re ready in case of fire. I can sleep at night,” she said.
Two years ago we had finished the “Panunuluyan of the Urban Poor” Mass with Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales and it was time for the people, especially the children, to eat. A 7- or 8-year-old girl, dressed as one of Santa’s helpers, brought her styrofoam lunch box over to the cathedral steps where I was sitting and squatted down to eat. She carefully opened the box and when she saw what was inside, she pulled back with her hands in the air, as if she had seen something priceless. She looked around to share her excitement.
“Wow!” she said out loud.
I went closer. In the box were two large golden brown pieces of Jollibee fried chicken.
It was probably the first time she ever had two pieces of chicken for herself. At Jollibee, two pieces of chicken cost P128, this is just about what the average urban poor family of five spends for its food in a day. Most poor children never have enough to eat.
In 1980, I visited the Zoto families who were moved from Tondo to the Dagat-Dagatan relocation site in Navotas. The people had struggled for 10 years to get good in-city relocation. I found one of our older leaders sitting in the 96-sq m lot the government had given her. I asked her how she liked her new home. Her old face was beaming. “I feel like I’m in paradise,” she told me.
On another level of experience altogether was the young woman with her parents I saw on the Oprah show some weeks ago. The young woman’s legs were fused at birth that they formed what was described on the program as a “mermaid’s tail.” The young woman can never have children or walk or even sit up without support, yet she is feisty and always smiling. She has finished college and is deciding what profession she will enter. She has no doubt she will succeed. She said she knows she can never have children, but she will adopt a child. She was wonderful on the show. But just as wonderful were the mother and father, who, while their girl talked, looked at her with enormous pride, love and gratitude. Meister Eckhart, a Medieval German mystic, used to say, “At least be grateful,” as if gratitude, like that of this father and mother, was the key to life’s riches.
There is an experience many priests have had, which brings us close to the Christmas mystery. They are asked to give communion to someone, adult or child, who is obviously and seriously troubled mentally. We believe some level of understanding is needed to receive communion, but who is to decide what that level is? Most priests I know give communion to the persons, believing that God who made them knows how to reach them in their shadows. Isn’t it at Christmas that God comes to this fallen race with all its blindness and darkened understanding? A less hopeful, less loving God would not come.
When we are grateful for knowing our names and having a small piece of land, two pieces of chicken, metered water and a special child we love, we are almost ready for Christmas.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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