Ruben M. Tanseco, S.J.
Ruben M. Tanseco, S.J. is director of the Center for Family Ministries at the Ateneo de Manila University and associate professor at Loyola School of Theology, Manila. He earned an MA in Pastoral Counseling from the University of Detroit and did doctoral studies in Pastoral Counseling, Pastoral Research Institute, Palo Alto, San Francisco, USA. He is spiritual director to the Marriage Encounter Foundation and the Foundation for Christian Parenting for Peace and Justice, Philippines. His recent writings include Political Spirituality: Reflections Before and After Edsa II.
Another Christmas is coming soon. Once again, we will religiously take out from our boxes our little belens(cribs) to be displayed in the center of our homes. Year after year, we go through the same ritual. Year after year, we play the same Christmas tunes and sing the same Christmas songs in front of that same belen. We feel a slight warmth and Christmassy glow in our hearts, which may even last for some days. And then - what?
Next year, we may go through the experience all over again. The Child in the belen will be the same Child. He will not have grown a bit. Or more accurately we will not allow the Child to grow. We freeze the scene. We eternalize the Santo Niño. We deck him with jewels and heavy, embroidered, suffocating gowns. We overwhelm him with our endless requests in childlike, or is it childish faith. We make this the most popular devotion in the country.
Through all this, we do much of the talking and much of the pleading before that Child. We may just be afraid that if we allow him to grow up, he might talk back to us in terms that we do not want to hear. If we allow him to plead back, he might just plead back with us in ways that we are not ready to listen to.
As a result, Christmases come and go. But many of us, like that Child in the belen, remain the same. Many of us hardly change. Hardly grow. And so our nation, this nation entrusted to us by God, is still where it is, Christian in name, hardly Christian in lifestyle.
In fact, if indeed there has been some changes after hundreds of Christmases the change has been toward un-Christianity. Look at the quality of government, the quality of business and industry, the quality of education, the quality of entertainment and mass media, the quality of life. After so many Christmases, we have gone farther still from what Christ himself tells us was the very reason for his coming: "I came that they might have life and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10).
That fullness of life—where is it, after going through so many Christmases? No, we have not taken Christmas seriously. We have sung through it, danced through it, feasted through it. But this nation has not taken Christmas seriously. We have not heeded John the Baptist, whose persistent plea was: "Reform your lives! The reign of God is at hand" (Mt. 3:2). For us as a nation, through hundreds of Christmases, the reign of God is always at hand, but just at hand. Because as a nation, we have not reformed our lives. So the miracle of Christmas cannot yet come to pass.
If you will allow me, let us together unfreeze that Christmas scene. Or better still, let us allow the scene to unfold—in time, in process, in motion. Yes, in perpetual motion. Never static. Ever dynamic.
Let us allow the Child to tell his story. Let us allow him to grow up. And through it all, who knows—we may also begin to grow. So that finally, finally, we may start to reform our lives as a nation, thus paving the way for the miracle of Christmas to happen to our country.
Let us begin by contemplating the life of the First Family. By this I mean Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the first Christian family, the original family, if you wish.
In that cave at Bethlehem, many years ago, silently and unobtrusively, a disturbing revolution began. A revolution so alien to the ways of this world that even after twenty centuries, many of us are still ambivalent, torn, struggling to either join the revolution all the way or fight against it.
There were many aspects to that revolution. Allow me to just focus on one family life. This was the first thing and the last thing that Christ shared with us. He was born into a family. He grew up and lived with his family, he died in the bosom of his family. From that cave at Bethlehem all the way to the foot of the cross, there wasfamily. Family thus became a vehicle of salvation.
And so, if our nation is to experience salvation and be saved for the Lord, we must likewise go through that revolution in family life which the First Christian Family went through. For a nation is only as Christian as the families that compose it.
At this point in our nation's history, our Lord may precisely be giving our families this supreme, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to respond to the call of the times, what with our tottering economy and our morally decadent citizenry.
With God's help, we face the challenge of transforming our society by first transforming our families. This is the task of a lifetime. But if we allow the Spirit of the Lord to be in us, we cannot fail. We have to start somewhere. And that somewhere is here and now with our families.
We believe in the oft-quoted statement that "all the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today." The children of today will be the leaders of tomorrow. Leaders of families, of church, of government, business, industry, everything.
Inspired by the Spirit of the Lord, let us allow our families then to be led by the Holy Family through this revolution in family life.
How did Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as a family live their lives together? We cannot but conclude, first of all, that love, overwhelming love, must have been the all-encompassing climate in that home. And from this far-reaching love flowed the way they lived, that is to say, their lifestyle. And this is what we are most concerned about right now—their lifestyle. For this alternative lifestyle, I believe, is what can and should be our response as families to our national crisis today.
The family lifestyle of the Holy Family was characterized by three, striking qualities, three outstanding values which I call the three S's: Stewardship, Simplicity and Sharing. Let us reflect on each one of them.
This means accepting the fundamental truth that God is the ultimate Father of our family. He is our creator and lord, and our family is his creation. Thus, everything that we are as a family, and everything that we have are not really ours but God's. "The Lord's are the earth and its fullness: the world and those who dwell in it" (Ps. 24:1). Our lives, talents, resources as a family—these have been entrusted to us, not to be used arbitrarily or merely for our own vested interests, but according to God's designs.
After Mary heard what the angel had said—that she was to bear a son, in spite of her being a virgin, and that the power of the Most High was to cover her with its shadow—she got terribly frightened. But after getting over that initial fear, the words that came out of her heart and lips were: "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me" (Lk 1:38).
This was matched by an identical attitude from Joseph, who proved worthy of his stewardship as foster father of Jesus, by giving all that he was and all that he had, to the best of his ability. And when it came to Jesus himself, we all know that throughout his life, his all-consuming passion was to render himself at the disposal of his heavenly Father's will.
Thus, the First Christian Family's fundamental stance and attitude in life was one of stewardship. And so it has to be with all other families who really want to be Christian.
This is a revolution in itself. This is so foreign to what you and I have been taught. Raised in the western, capitalistic philosophy of private ownership, we have been brainwashed to believe that we own ourselves and what we have and what we can acquire and accumulate. And that we can do with these as we please, precisely because we regard them as our own. As someone had said, we often act, not as caretakers, but as owners. Instead of representing God's rule, we choose to be like God. And we find it so very difficult to relinquish ownership to God.
Yes, the family is God's caretaker. How profoundly meaningful that word is. Our Flipino translation is equally powerful: "Tagapag-alaga (caretaker)." (I ask you not to associate the word "alaga" with some other meaning, like: "Oy, pare, alam mo ba iyong kaibigan mo - maraming "alaga"? [Oh comrade, do you know that your friend has many girlfriends?]. Whether it is used in the political or sexual sense, this is not what we mean!). The stewardship meaning of alaga involves deep compassion, responsible caring, dedicated service. To make the best use of whatever the Lord has gifted us with as a family—according to his designs, not according to the world's self-serving designs.
No, families can be truly Christian and Filipino without being nationalists. To love God is to love our country, for this is God's country. To love God is to love our people, for these are God's people. To love our country and our people with deep passion and compassion—to the marrow of our bones—this is what can make our nation great. And this is precisely what is missing in many of our families, even among those who are involved in spiritual renewal movements: the living conviction that the Filipino and the Filipino nation are worth dying for.
As families, above all, we must take communal responsibility for protecting God's ownership and sovereignty over our land, our people, our human dignity and freedom, and over truth and justice. We cannot allow business, industry, government and other systems to trample upon us when they attempt to abrogate ownership of these aspects of our lives to themselves. We allow many in our land with shameless greed for profit and power, to exploit the powerless. But the Bible warns us: "Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field..." (Is. 5:8).
Again, in the New Testament we read our Lord's strong words: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mt 22:21). The tax-money belongs to Caesar. Give that to him. But this land of ours belongs to God, not to Caesar. Our people belong to God and most certainly not to Caesar. Our human dignity, freedom, truth, and justice—these cannot be surrendered to Caesar singular or to Caesars plural. They belong to God. And the core of our stewardship with God as families is to keep it that way, even at the cost of our lives. In fact, what is life for if not for that?
This singleness of purpose, this attitude of stewardship for God, inevitably leads us to the second "S" of our alternative, Christian family lifestyle - Simplicity.
This means simple living. It follows that with a profound attitude of being stewards, caretakers of the Lord, our family will be gradually led to a more simple lifestyle. As our family focuses more on the Lord and the neighbor, it will gradually learn to focus less on itself.
It is crucial here to get a real feel of how the Holy Family members lived their life. They certainly lived for us, in no uncertain terms, what simple living was. The birth of Christ, his hidden life as a carpenter, his public ministry, his death—all these were characterized by dignified simplicity.
The life of the Holy Family was not a glorification of poverty as such, much less of destitution—which robs the family of its dignity and humanity—but rather a glorification of simplicity. There was such a profound dignity, respectability, and sacredness about the simple lifestyle of the First Family—of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. For them, persons were more important than possessions.
This is our inspiration and our norm, no matter what socio-economic level our family comes from. This is a most urgent call to all of us families, particularly at this time of our national crisis.
As families, we must be acutely aware and ruthlessly honest about the insidious climate of technological materialism that surrounds us, whether this be capitalistic materialism or communistic materialism. As we had mentioned under stewardship, and again here, we must especially guard against a shameful colonial mentality and living beyond our means as families and as a nation.
In this scenario of technological materialism, luxuries very quickly become necessities. Imported products cease to be options and become preferences, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat—"Levi's," "Gucci-Gucci," "Christian Dior." As long as there is the word Christian!
And how many young and not-so-young people would continue to patronize, let alone prefer, Nena's bibingka,puto, and ginatan? (Filipino delicacies.) So many families would rather be seduced to run to McDonald's, Dunkin Doughnuts, Kentucky Chicken, and Shakey's. And where do you think much of the profits of these multinational franchises go to? Of course to the original owners of the name brands. Not to our country. Not to our people. They only use our cheap labor. We cannot creatively develop our own native resources under this climate. As we continue to do this to ourselves, can we really say that we are God's stewards of our own land, our own country? Moreover, is this Filipino?
Intellectual honesty is needed here—where luxuries remain as luxuries, and necessities are properly provided for, as the Lord of nature would have it. The quantity and quality of food, clothing, shelter, and other human facilities, including energy, should become the objects of critical discernment. Healthy food need not be the best food, decent clothing need not be the most expensive, a comfortable home need not be the envy of the neighbors, and energy conservation can become second nature to us all.
The same goes for forms of recreation and relaxation. Back-to-nature activities are more healthy and creative. Ways of celebrating significant events like birthdays, weddings, Christmas, and New Year can be more simple, more creative, and much less expensive. The amount of money that went up in firecracker smoke this past New Year’s Eve, among the rich as well as among the poor, and for hours and hours on end, simply depressed me rather than ushered me joyfully into the New Year. Balance and moderation were far from the consciousness of people.
In all this, I certainly am not advocating excesses or extremes, a kind of fanatic conversion which we call "freaking out," but rather a balanced, down-to-earth, Christ-inspired simplicity of family lifestyle. This is what we call "creative deprivation." Simple living for a barrio, a farmer family would of course take quite a different coloring from the simple living of an urban, highly successful professional or wealthy businessman’s family.
The farmer, for example, may have to minimize his consumption of beer or his trips to the "sabungan,"(cockpit) or his family could really cut down on what they splurge on during the town fiesta, or on what they spend on "kuwitis" (firecrackers) during New Year's Eve. For the upper middle class family of a successful professional, on the other hand, it may mean a real, honest to goodness cutting down on consumer goods, household facilities and appliances, cars, trips abroad, and what-have-you.
Perhaps some or even many of our families have already begun doing this. Such initial efforts must be supported, encouraged, and sustained, until they become a new way of life for all of us. What a legacy to leave to our children. Simplicity of lifestyle.
A recent issue of a local magazine featured different families responding to this in various ways. One family drastically cut down the number of their house help and tried to get employment elsewhere for those who had to leave them. Food recycling is another strategy of a second family. Another said: "For us, less socials and more social work." For another, the parents went out of their way to provide livelihood for others. Still another religiously cut down on gas by frequently taking the bus instead. One family sold their second car. The possibilities are endless.
In many aspects of our family life, we can learn to be more creative when we discipline ourselves to use fewer things and possessions around us. More importantly, this creative deprivation leads us to an inner growth of the spirit, which in turn moves us to reach out. Reaching in leads to reaching out. And this precisely brings us to the third "S" in our Christian lifestyle: Sharing.
Simple living leads to greater sharing. If our needs and tastes are more simple, then there will be more of ourselves and what we have that we can share with others, be it our time, talents, resources, our very lives. This becomes the most meaningful consequence of creative deprivation. This simple, seemingly simplistic way leads us to the core of Christianity—a life of sharing. In fact, this is the miracle that is Christianity. This is the miracle of Christmas.
Here again, our inspiration and our norm is the Holy Family, the sharing family, the family-for-others. First of all, the sharing of their love, their persons. Then the sharing of their resources.
At the age of twelve, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his parents for the Feast of Passover. Because of the crowds, the child was left behind. They found him only after several days, in the temple, where he was listening and discussing among the temple doctors. You could almost guess what Mary had said at that early stage: "Son where have you been. Did you not know that your father and I have been searching for you? And Jesus replied: "Did you not know that I have to be about my Father’s business. Thus showing them, even at that early stage of their family life, that their family must share themselves with the bigger community of other families. At this point in time, Mary and Joseph did not yet quite understand what Jesus meant. But in time they did. Mary kept these things in her heart, according to the Gospel, and she, too, grew in age, and wisdom, and grace (Lk 2:42-52).
Later on, when Jesus had just started his public life and was preaching to a big crowd, a messenger came to Jesus and said: "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you." What was the response of Jesus? "And who are my mother and my brothers? You and you and you—whoever follows the will of my Father in heaven—he is my mother and my brother" (Mt 12:48). This time, Mary was silent. She knew. She understood.
In fact, at that beautiful wedding at Cana—the beginning of family life for that young couple—it was Mary herself who noticed their need and approached her son, saying: "They have no more wine. Please do something." And he did. A perfect mother-and-son team. A sharing family. A family-for-others (Jn 2:1-11).
At another time, a huge crowd had followed Jesus to listen to his words of life. It was late. They were all hungry. Says the gospel of St. Matthew:
When evening came, the disciples went to him and said, `This is a lonely place, and the time has slipped by; so send the people away, and they can go to the villages to buy themselves some food.' Jesus replied, 'There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.' But they answered, `All we have with us are five loaves and two fish.' `Bring them here to me.' he said. He gave orders that the people were to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. And breaking the loaves he handed them to his disciples who gave them to the crowds. They all ate as much as they wanted, and they collected the scraps remaining, twelve baskets full. Those who ate numbered about five thousand men, to say nothing of women and children (Mt 14:15-21).
What was most striking about this event may not be so obvious to some of us: It was in the very act of sharingthat the miracle occurred. Christ and his disciples gave from the little that they had, and it was then that God performed his miracle through them.
It is when we share of ourselves with others that we come closest to the way of Christ. It is when we share that we allow God to work his miracle all over again. And right now, God knows how much we need this kind of sharing in our country, for this country to really be in God's favor, for this country to deserve a working of God's miracle.
But how deeply sorrowful he must be to see the opposite happening in many quarters, and between the rich and the poor of our land. The dramatic contrast. The unjust, un-godly, inequitable distribution of God's resources because of people's doing.
Take the most basic of human needs: food and nutrition. The problem of many of our people is how to gain weight--since they lack sufficient, nourishing food. On the other hand, the problem of some of our economic elite is how to lose weight, because they are overfed. May jogging dito, may Fonda-Fonda aerobics doon, at kung anu-ano pang mga paraan para magpa-slim. (Gyms offering Fonda aerobics and slimming exercises are mushrooming in the country).
This is not meant to point a finger at any one. This is simply to describe a tragic situation that is aching for change, for a more equitable distribution and sharing, of this nation's resources, which, after all, are God’s resources that were meant for all. This was how it was in the earliest Christian communities, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. No family had too much. No family had too little.
It is time for more and more families to work toward this. For them to move and act as groups, so that they can become agents of change within the systems of government, business, industry, and economics.
There are actually three ways by which families can do this sharing outside of their own little families. One is on the level of what we call corporal works of mercy. The traditional ways of sharing with others who have less, as for example, direct alms to the needy, operating feeding centers, direct relief goods for the victims of natural catastrophies, and other similar projects. A second way is on the level of helping others to help themselves. The self-help approach, like creating jobs for others, helping in developing and marketing the products of the poor, helping to develop poor communities in a total, holistic way, and so on. And a third way is on the level of direct work for justice, as for example, participation in the non-violent, Christian inspired parliament of the streets, or supporting just strikes of poor workers, or any other form of active non-violence in bringing about the Christian transformation of societal structures and institutions that are clearly unjust and oppressive.
Over and above all this is the sharing of ourselves, our love, compassion, time, and the sharing of our faith and spiritual blessings. Only in this way can our families become really Christian.
And for our families to sustain these efforts, we must cast out our fears and place our total trust in the Lord. We must be ready to stick out like sore thumbs, as it were, in the midst of a self-seeking world. We must be fearless in going against the tide, of being nonconformist. Someone had said it so well, and allow me to quote: "If it hasn't already done so, the Church in this new millennium must recognize that it lives in a pagan society; it must seek values and norms not shared by society. In short, it will either recover the Christian doctrine of nonconformity or cease to have any authentic Christian voice" (Gospel Herald, Sept. 26,1978). We need a spirituality of resistance for the 21st century.
Let us not be afraid to raise our families as non-conformists, as social deviants even. For this is the only way we can live the alternative lifestyle of stewardship, simplicity, and sharing which the First Christian Family taught us. The nonconformists of today will prove to be the real Christians of tomorrow.
As we go through our fumbling attempts and continuing struggles, let us fix our gaze on Jesus. As long as we do that, we will be able to walk on the waves, without sinking. But the moment we lose trust in him and become conscious of our puny, little selves, then, like Peter, we will start to sink. And Jesus will likewise say to us: "O you of little faith; why did you doubt?" (Mt- 14:22-32).
He calls us to this revolution in family life as a response to the call of the times. Let us carry on this alternative, family lifestyle of Stewardship, Simplicity, and Sharing—rooted in the divine assurance that Jesus will be with us all the way: "Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world" (Mt. 28:20).