The experience of Christmas began surely with the Misa de Gallo on December 16, though its spirit had come weeks before. Last year was a very special. It was the first and also the only dawn Mass I attended.
Last Christmas was the first one that I experienced the real meaning of the “First Christmas.” It was a very busy day of December 16 as I spent whole day shopping and wrapping gifts and preparing for Christmas party. I felt so tired yet excited and happy when the evening came. On the late evening, I exchanged texts with a friend who was travelling back to his hometown. I was worried because the rain and the wind were strong and heavy. I was worried more when it did not seem to stop. I thought of my families in my apostolate area Calacala. I just felt uncertain. My friend assured me that everything would be alright and I needed to go to sleep.
After a tiring day, I had a very deep sleep that I did not hear or notice the chaos of the flood around that night. And I woke at 3:30 A.M without knowing that the water was already around our house up to first floor. I went out of my room and saw the water. The first thought came to me was “Oh God, my people in Calacala!” I just felt my heart torn for I knew that they would be somewhere whole night if the water such high as I remembered the flood in 2009. I did not want to think more because I was afraid of the fact that the children who are so close to my heart were washed away with this flood. In the midst of darkness, thousands were screaming and shouting for help.
As soon as the sky became a little bright, I went to the retreat house where our students tried to rescue a man, a lady and two children in our compound. They were so lost. I felt deep pain when I saw a very big man who just sat down with his hands over the head and was trembling, not because of the cold of water but because his daughter was separated from him. After a short nap, he woke up with the news that his daughter died in the road near our place. He just cried like a child. I could not help stand this. As morning came, the things could be seen clearly; I could not bear to see the huge view in front of my eyes. I just cried, not because of the things we lost and that of others but seeing so many wooden houses in our place, I felt the pain of knowing that there were many people who died and missing. I was not able to go out of the house to see the people because of the level of the water and mud. I just started to clean up the house with our working students.
It was a long and heavy day!
From the second day to the sixth day of the dawn Mass, all around us was the same. There were no electricity, no water but mud. Every day I went to the retreat house for cleaning with a very heavy heart because every morning more than one dead body was found, either children or adults. There was time I did not feel going there. I could not sleep in the evening knowing that there was still someone waiting to be found. I felt scared and yet angry at myself for I could not do anything, even reached out to my families. I had no news if they were still alive. I just could not leave because I was in-charge of the retreat house and I needed to be there every now and then. I knew that we were affected and victims but at least our lives were safe. I just felt so helpless and depressed.
On the seventh day, for the first time after the flood, I was able to go to Mass. God’s words to me through the homily brought me tears. For the first time in a long week, I really had time to silence myself and listened to Him and my heart. I was invited to contemplate on the first Christmas when Joseph and Mary traveled back to Jerusalem.
This experience helped me to realize the meaning of real Christmas as the first meaningful one in my life. In the first Christmas, “Joseph went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” (Luke1, 4-5) There was no light, no romantic music, no gift, no party, no food but a struggle to find a place for the child to be born. Both Joseph and Mary were not joyful or merry on the first Christmas. It was a struggling time for Mary and Joseph to welcome the Lord in the worst situation without home or even a clean place for the child. The meaning of Christmas came when the child Jesus was born.
The whole city of Cagayan was in a very silent night that even in the Christmas Eve Mass, the same Christmas songs were sang but the spirit was different. It was not joyful as it used to. In our place, there was no light, no music, no decoration, etc. but a silent night. We were struggling to remain in the house after the flood. But in the midst of difficulty, Mary and Joseph were hopeful and so we. I hope for joy of welcoming and having the Lord. I just wondered how the Lord wanted me to welcome with this situation and I felt His presence.
My anger had died down. In the midst of dead and all the negative things around like a dark night, the child Jesus was like a bright star that gave me hope and life. And that was the real meaning of Christmas that I realized last Christmas. As I went out to see people, listened to their stories even though I could not understand many times, I could feel the pain of loss, the gratitude for having survived and for life. I did not greet “Merry Christmas” because I myself did not feel merry, how could I do to people. But I still trusted in a better new life, in the generosity of people, in the courage that was given. In this Christmas, we did not have any “Belen” decoration in the house but whenever I went out on the road, I could see a real “Belen” where families were in poverty and helplessness.
I saw in each family in the evacuation center a Holy Family on the First Christmas when they experienced also struggles. But the joy of believing in better days to come because of the presence of the Lord kept them alive. That was when I finished my day as I stayed with the Lord to contemplate more about life and death, about gain and loss, and about His Love in the Incarnation to share with us, with me, and all of humanity. Thought it was not easy to understand and to discover the Lord in all these events, He has enough patience to wait for us and to reveal Himself in each and all situations in life.
The more I contemplated on this special Christmas, the more my heart was filled with peace, hope and courage. The feast of the Epiphany was the enlightened day for me as I prayed over the Gospel and contemplated on the Light and the Magi. “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem, saying ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” (Matthew 2, 1-2) It was amazing how different groups of persons welcomed the Lord. For Herod, the newborn was a threat for his Kingship that he used his power to destroy and cost the lives of many babies. For the scribes who knew well Scripture and stayed so close to the Lord, but were not able to see the Light of the newborn. But the three Magis from far east paid enough attention to discover him and so were led closer to the Light.
Looking at the big and damaged area in front of me, I asked myself “where is the Light, the new born Jesus in here and now?” And I realized that, even in this chaos, He is here with me. And I was filled with consolation as I realized this. The Star Light is always at my sight to lead me, especially in my darkest moment when His Light brightens my way. I was affirmed how privileged I was and we were as an Order who also experienced loss and suffered the flood which enabled us to feel and experienced what our people went through. And at the same time, it was also an invitation and challenge for a new life and hope that we could build with other lives. With God’s grace, we could stand up in the midst of loss and depressions to rebuild our lives with hope. It was hope that kept us going on in our lives despite all the times of helplessness and temptations of giving up. And in doing so, we believed that our people might see and be encouraged by this hope to begin rebuilding their lives as well. That was the call that we were given with this event and I was so grateful for this.
A new year was unfolded and a hope for a new life began. That was the end of my Christmas experience and the start of new journey of faith and hope. And that was the greatest Christmas gift that Jesus surprised me. I was never tired of discovering the mysterious gifts in life that He always leads me in, though it is not easy to see it as gift. But that is how He works in me. My heart is but full of confidence when I think of the Baby, yet my Lord who is trustfully in His Mother’s arm. That I can sing:
“My soul proclaim the greatness of the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For He has looked upon His handmaid’s lowliness;
Behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.” (Luke 2, 45-50)
Phuong Anh, ODN is the sister-in-charge of Lestonnac Youth Center