December 25, 2022
We have a saying in Kapampangan that goes: “Map ne kaku bale dampa nung karin bie cu timawa kesa ketang bale tisa a nung nu cu makasila’t sasakmalan ning upaya.” Its literal English translation is, “I’d rather live in the humble shack where my life is free than in a house of bricks where I am a captive, shackled by greed.” Its closest equivalent in Tagalog is the more popular saying, “Mabuti na sa akin ang bahay kahit kubo kung nakatira’y tao, kaysa bahay na bato at ang nakatira naman ay kuwago.” In English: “Better for me a humble bamboo hut inhabited by humans, than a house of stone inhabited by owls.”
Perhaps we can think of Bethlehem as God’s way of teaching us how to build a proper home. Home is what can become of any place—even a cart on a sidewalk, or a shack under a bridge, or a corner in a cemetery mausoleum—as long as its dwellers are still capable of expressing care and respect for each other, treating each other as human beings (tao), not as pseudo-humans (tau-tauhan). The Tagalog use of the owl (kuwago) as an image for the pseudo-humans is particularly interesting in that it conjures up the metaphor of one who has wide open eyes but sees absolutely nothing in the light. This nocturnal animal which sees only in the dark and preys on little creatures, for Filipinos, is a representation of the oppressors living in palaces.
Perhaps we must correct our Pinoy reenactment of the Christmas story through the drama of Panunuluyan. It is not true, after all, that the Holy Family was not welcomed in any of the houses where they attempted to seek shelter in their time of need. They were welcomed by the shepherds who had no place to offer except the stable for their animals, which, to some might not pass for a decent dwelling for humans. Within the shepherds’ circumstances, these stables were homes too—not just for their animals, but for themselves as well. And they were more than willing to offer them as a shelter for the holy family. It was their kindness and thoughtfulness that made the little corner in that stable into a warm and cozy home for Joseph, Mary, and the Baby Jesus.
This reminds me of that song sung by Dionne Warwick and composed by Burt Bacharach, which became famous in the 70s, “A House is not a Home”. It says, “A chair is still a chair even when there’s no one sitting there, but a room is not a house and a house is not a home when the two of us are far apart and one of us has a broken heart.”
Mary’s heart remained whole and firm, even in the face of rejection. We’re told by Luke, “She kept these things in her heart,” after the shepherds visited them. What she nursed in her heart was gratitude for the kindness done to them by these lowly shepherds, not resentment for those who refused to make space for them in the inn. There is no space for resentment in a pure heart. And only a pure heart can see the face of God in the humble child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
What can we learn from Mary in the Christmas story?