HALA, BIRA!

N.B. For the sake of my Philippine readers, I am posting in advance, a reflection I wrote back in 2003 on the Feast of the Child Jesus (Sto. Nino). My foreign readers will understand that the feast of the Holy Child is an important one in Philippine culture and tradition and is one of the noisiest, merriest, and fun-filled days of the year.I have also made a related reflection at Per Agrum ad Sacrum site.

There is an air of decisiveness and definitiveness by which revelers at the famous Sinulog of Cebu and the Ati-atihan of Aklan, and similar celebrations all over the country get into the act of celebrating the feast of the Santo Nino. What some of them shout out in full force as they beat their drums and dance their way through the main thoroughfares expresses it all: HALA, BIRA!

I have no ready explanation for this phenomenon as a Filipino, but the way we Filipinos greet young children and treat them to festive celebrations has definitely an air of aggressive hopefulness all the time! Why, no Filipino father would do so much as give a reluctant headstart to his newborn son or daughter! No Filipino parent would allow himself or herself to be carried away by pessimism or hopelessness when it comes to introducing his or her little one to the world. Just look at the amount of money Filipino families spend on baptisms! They would rather postpone the baptism of their child rather than not have anything to offer to guests and relatives to celebrate and feast on. No self-respecting parent here in the Philippines would allow the first birthday of his or her child pass by without at least a few bottles of beer to share with kumpadres and some spaghetti to dish out to the guests.

Filipinos are bullish when it comes to giving a hopeful headstart to their young children. In every family, the child is the sole focus of attention, worry and planning. How else explain the sudden rise in popularity of educational plans in the whole country? And when it comes to celebrating in the name of a child, there are no holds barred; no bounds; no limits. HALA, BIRA! Sigue! Go for it!

This may well explain the decidedly noisy mirth-making attached to the feast of the God-become-child in the person of the Santo Nino!

Whilst not bad in itself, this aggressive hoping and bullishness attached to the celebration of the Santo Nino, epitomized in the watchword HALA BIRA, may just as well be appropriated by us in other aspects of our lives as Filipinos. That decisiveness, that I-mean-business type of approach to life, which is the exact opposite of the wishy-washy I-don’t-exactly-know-what-to-do type of behavior that seems to be the hallmark of our political will-challenged leadership both in and out of government, is what we may be much in need of, elsewhere in our communal and personal lives.

I suggest that the way we are bullish about giving fitting – if, at times excessive - celebrations to any child figure, including the figure of the child Jesus , ought exactly to be the way we approach most everything else in our society.

Christmas celebrations are the longest in the Philippines. Whilst it officially ended last week, there is some kind of “second wind” by way of this bonus of a celebration for us. The child, apparently, takes too long to grow, in a cultural sense. And yet, the Gospel of Luke makes it quite clear for all of us: “and Jesus advanced (in) wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Lk 2:52).

The child Jesus certainly deserves all that we Filipinos do to celebrate in his honor. Noisy or subdued, active or sedate, whatever form it takes for all of us today or around this day, all celebrations made in his honor and glory are all fitting and proper for one who “humbled himself and took the nature of a slave,” who chose to dwell in our midst, the God-made-man who was “like unto us in all things, except sin.”

But the child-Jesus certainly deserves a whole lot more. And this is where we need to realize as Filipinos, that substance and not mere form, is what matters most, what counts most. This is where we need to put a lot of flesh to so much rhetoric, so many words uttered in vain, for they are more to serve our grandstanding selves rather than the common good. This is where we need as Filipinos to understand that faith cannot remain infantile, that faith has to spill out of our altarinas, our covenanted communities, our action groups, our households, our small group affiliations and family compounds. This is where we need to really understand that like the boy Jesus, our attachment to the Lord has to go beyond mere privatistic faith and selfish concerns and that this very same faith must be felt and seen where it is needed most – in the area of public service, in government and in our political and social lives.

HALA, BIRA may be appropriated like a biblical command after all, when seen in this light. HALA, BIRA may then be understood to mean, go for it, “be not afraid,” “ go and make disciples of all nations, and teach them all that I have commanded you.” HALA BIRA may then be seen as an encouragement to a David, sent to do battle with the Goliath of selfishness, graft and corruption, and utter unconcern for the common good. HALA BIRA, may then be understood, too, as a call to go deep – DUC IN ALTUM – to probe the depths and courageously take up the challenges posed by this vast ocean of a consumerist, globalized, and individualistic world that we live in.

Yes, there is wisdom tucked deep in this highly popular Filipino celebration of the Santo Nino. There is rhyme and reason to it all. But it takes some reflection and meditation. This is what we in Church all over the Philippines do today. In the context of a more quiet but more meaningful Eucharistic celebration, our inner joy and still aggressive hope leads us to ask the same Lord whom now we behold in the simplicity of a child, to make us all “advance in wisdom and grow daily in faith and works of love, so that we may find favor in [God’s] sight” (Postcommunion prayer). HALA, BIRA!

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