Christmas Comes Early

By Bro. Bros Flores, SJ

It was my first Christmas away from the Philippines, in a non-Christian country at that! The assignment to attend a two-week meeting on interreligious dialogue in Yogyakarta, Central Java in Indonesia from 17 December 2010 to 03 January 2011 generated more anxiety than excitement. While I was excited to travel outside the Philippines again, this time as a Jesuit and to engage in a relevantly broadening endeavour, the anxiety over the recent events in Indonesia overpowered my excitement. Mt. Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano, continued to spew lava in the area close to where we would be meeting. Then, as if to contradict the purpose of our trip, hostilities against Christians erupted anew with a series of bombings in Central Java, the latest of which occurred just ten days earlier in the Christ the King Church that left two people dead and a number injured.

Leaving for Indonesia became even more cumbersome because it happened a day after the Christmas Season had officially started. Still reeling from the comforts of home, I moved around Klaten looking for semblances of Christmas that would remind me of the joyous season. There was nothing. My effort brought more loneliness than joy. My estrangement from home, family and loved ones became even more poignant.

The first days of the meeting were spent on discussions about the program. If not for our daily Masses, I would not know that Christmas was drawing near. On the day that we were deployed to the different pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools) for a three-day immersion, I chanced upon a newspaper that bannered “Red Alert in Central Java.” The news article reported that there was a heightened security alert in the region because Muslim extremists threatened to bomb Christian gatherings in time for Christmas. “What a way to send me off!” Fear gripped me throughout the trip. I felt alone despite the presence of my fellow Jesuits. No matter how much I tried to assure myself, my mind insisted on conjuring up images of explosions, deaths and even martyrdom. No amount of repetition of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s First Principle and Foundation could allay my fear and aloneness.

It took me some time to compose myself after we arrived in Ya Quommi in Salatiga, my home for the next three days. Kangmas, a former santri (student in the boarding school) warmly introduced himself, carried my bag, and led me to the room he shared with three other alumni. They were to be my roommates for the next three days. He then showed me around the place, while asking questions about my background and sharing stories on how he ended up in the pesantren. The place was quite simple and there were a number of inconveniences. The bedroom, for example, which served also as our dining and study area, was generally bare except for the thin mattresses on the floor and shelves for the santris’ things. Other rooms housed other Jesuit guests and some ten to twelve santris. Aside from the bedrooms, the compound had a common toilet and bath (that did not have enough water) and a prayer room.

Sensing my uneasiness, Kangmas invited me for snacks, his treat! The invitation made me even more hesitant, ashamed and even guilty (for the resistance I was feeling towards the visit). We walked for about a block until we reached a hole-in-the-wall refreshment parlor and took susu-jahe, a hot milk-ginger beverage. Our conversation continued with lessons on basic Bahasa so I could “survive” my stay in Indonesia. In the midst of our “lessons,” I suddenly felt a sense of peace. Fear dissipated, the sense of estrangement melted away, and I felt at home. I belonged. The fear that took me hours to assuage took Kangmas only a few minutes. His candor, generosity and hospitality coaxed me out of my already-crumbling fortress of biases and stereotypes against Islam, its culture and its people (biases I never realized I still had until then).

I became more relaxed in the next days that saw us living the life of the santris. We woke up at 4:00 a.m. to pray and this was followed by Arabic and Qur’an classes with kiai (priest) Fahrid. We joined them for meals. The rest of the day was spent in the State School of Islam Religion (STAIN) where we had discussions and presentations on religion and culture with the students. We also joined them in daytime prayers. Our casual sharing and spontaneous interaction replaced their nightly English classes. There was no dull moment. How Kangmas treated me was, I later realized, the norm among them rather than the exception. The profundity of Muslims and Christians living together harmoniously was more than enough to compensate for the inconveniences of a Spartan lifestyle. If not for the arrival of the bus that would bring us back to Klaten, I would not have realized that Christmas was just few hours away.

While relishing the experience on our way home, I remembered the promise of the first reading of the second Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 11:1-10). Are not peace and goodwill to all men the essence of Jesus’ Incarnation and not the trimmings and parties that the season brings? Is it really possible to experience Christmas among people who do not recognize Jesus as the incarnate Savior? As written by Karl Rahner, SJ, one of the most influential German theologians of the twentieth century:

““Some may have the courage of an explicit faith in the truth of Christmas, while others accept it only quietly in the unfathomable depth of their own existence, filled by a blessed hope without words. When the former accept the latter as ““anonymous”” Christians, then all can celebrate Christmas together. The seemingly superficial and conventional Christmas hoopla is blessed in the end with truth and depth. What looks like a sham in light of all the holiday activity, then, is not the complete truth, for in the background stands the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.””

We later joined the Indonesian Jesuits and their parishioners for the Christmas Midnight Mass amid very tight security. When the traditional Christmas meal and merrymaking were over, I went to bed wondering why I did not feel as “Christmassy” as in past Christmases. Then it hit me. Christmas had come early for me, and in fact even more profoundly.

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