Rest in peace Renan! You touched many lives, including mine. May your example of selflessness live on in more young people!
December 25, 2012
WHAT’S RIGHT ABOUT GIFT-GIVING ON CHRISTMAS DAY
Anti-catholic haters abound these days. Yes, even, and especially on Christmas day. Some of them former Catholics themselves, whose very shallow understanding of what they claimed they believed in, was simply not enough for them to parry all the sloganeering and the proselytizing, they have one common line: What’s all the fuss about celebrating a commercialized Christmas? What does the flurry of gift-giving got to do with the second most solemn feast of the liturgical year?
My answer is, simply everything! The question they ask seems to be “what’s wrong about gift-giving on Christmas Day?” That seems to me the wrong question that in turn, would produce a wrong answer.
I suggest that the question ought to be: “What’s right about gift-giving on Christmas Day?”
Let me share with you a personal story that took place only the other day, just when most people all over the world are looking forward to celebrating Christmas as family, whole, at close ranks, and together. Just when all I wanted to do was to recover so much lost sleep on account of more than a week of Dawn Masses (Simbang Gabi), I received a call from a former student. One of their former companions back in seminary days whad fallen seriously ill and had not been able to recognize anyone, shaking uncontrollably in semi-coma, and doctors unable to pin down what was the matter. It had been a week since he sort of “snapped,” I was told.
I still don’t know what led me to answer “yes” at once. In a daze owing to lack of sleep, I normally would not read text messages all at once. I decided to, that day. And after knowing what was the matter, I immediately agreed to go to a relatively distant hospital where the young man, who had been one of our students in the seminary, was.
Even now, I thank God I did not refuse the opportunity to anoint someone seriously sick. Even now, I thank God that I had been instrumental in accompanying somebody who, it turned out, was in the last stage of his earthly journey. Even now, and especially now that he had passed on, despite my fervent wishes and prayers that he’d pull through, I thank and praise God that I had witnessed an example so clear of what Christmas is all about, and what the flurry of gift-giving really means, at bottom.
Let me tell you why.
Renan was a young man in his late teens when he got to know the Salesians in Samar, southern Philippines. He lived and studied and worked at the same time for a while in our training center in Borongan, Samar where he manifested the desire to be a priest like the ones who took care of him and educated him partly in Borongan. He went into the normal seminary routine, became a postulant, a novice, and eventually professed a Salesian. After the novitiate year in Cebu, he moved on to the Postnovitiate House in Canlubang, Laguna, where I was Rector and formator for many years.
But coming as he does from a poor family, he was torn between his desire to be a religious priest, and his equally legitimate desire to help his parents and siblings. At the end of the postnovitiate stage, he reluctantly decided to leave and do something to help his family.
And that was what he did precisely, holding a stressful, full-time job, initially getting one which gave low pay, but which he knew could be a staging point for him to grant other poor young people jobs, too. Eventually he landed in a call center where at the time of his death, he was already team leader, quite close to being manager. Focused only on work and on helping his family, acting like the father to his siblings, he sent a sister to school, built a house for his mother and other siblings, started a small business for his mother, and was in the process of starting a bigger business venture for his family of origin, never for a time entertaining thoughts of settling down, and pushing his desire for marriage on the back burner, and working passionately towards the attainment of his altruistic dreams.
That was how he lived. Working with panache, driven by a vision not for himself, but others. That was how he died, passionately dedicated to the welfare of his family, not for a moment thinking about his own comfort, always, as his close friend, another former student of mine says, thinking about what else to do to uplift his family’s economic status and total well-being.
When he collapsed in exhaustion and stress, brought about by a job that he handled so well despite the lack of psychic rewards, and the presence of so many problems and concerns, it appeared like he needed to rest for a long, long while.
He was brought to the hospital. Doctors could see nothing the matter from his MRI, CT-Scan and other tests, but he was in a state of semi-coma for a week, unable to recognize anyone, shaking uncontrollably in one hand, and unable to move the other hand, bleeding profusely in the stomach for days, and losing half his body weight in a matter of less than a week.
Last Saturday, when I got to the hospital room, and lost no time in giving him the anointing of the sick, I was close to tears seeing someone in the prime of his life ravaged by a mysterious sickness, reduced to a helpless state, but still apparently trying to put up a gallant fight to live.
And it was during and after the anointing that the miracle happened – the miracle that for this humble writer, who is old enough to be his father, is really the ultimate meaning of Christmas, among other things.
When I did the laying on of hands, the person who recognized nobody prior to that moment showed recognition and incipient awareness. He fixed his gaze on me, and even if he was burning with fever, managed for a fleeting few minutes to steady his eyes and fix his gaze around familiar faces, his former seminary companions, my former students. After the anointing, he was drenched in sweat, trying to mumble words, trying to tell me something very important. I thought I heard a rasp of a sound that spelled like F-a-t-h-e-r! And it was at that moment of lucidity that I told him I was giving him the absolution.
But the miracle of life did not end there. The best was yet to come. There was another shift. After being bathed in sweat trying his mighty best to communicate, and knowing that he had been absolved and forgiven, the struggle to say something was gone. The sweating subsided. The shaking dwindled considerably. Prior to that words were furiously trying to get out of his mouth. At that time, words were no longer necessary. I knew. He knew. Everyone in the room understood. Words now were simply optional, but peace and love were obligatory. I saw it. I felt it. I knew it.
He smiled. I swear that that was the most winsome and convincing smile I ever saw in my life. It was the smile of God, who told me, at least, that Christmas is about hoping, that Christmas is about joy, and that Christmas is about giving. Suffering is what I saw as I got in, but it was Christian resignation and acceptance even of the unacceptable that I brought out with me. I received something wonderful. I was given the gift that even the Magi could not have given.
Whoever says there is nothing right with gift-giving in Christmas either does not know Scripture or ignores it altogether. Let me repeat what Scripture says in all four Masses of Christmas Day:
“A child is born for us, a son is given to us.” (Isaiah)
“Jesus Christ gave himself for us.” (Paul)
“A savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke)
“But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.” (John)
I got inside the hospital room poor as a mouse, in my lack of sleep, in my lack of hope, and in my cynicism. I brought with me a tired world, a hopeless world, a beaten world – beaten by the contours of hopelessness around me, even because of me. I got out of it a richer man, enriched by a dying man who gave me the best and most memorable Christmas gift ever.
So, pray tell me, what’s wrong with gift-giving? Nothing! What’s right about gift-giving on Christmas? Everything. And I got it all one day just before Christmas of 2012, thanks to Renan, because God gave His only begotten Son one day and became like me today.
For today is born the King of Kings, Christ the Lord!
In memoriam … Renan Luteria (1979-2012)