If you are facing the main altar, you can see the antique side altar (technically we call it the retablo) at your left, the altar of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Train your eyes way up the altar just below the big eyes with the rays (that is the symbol of God the Father) and you will see a small statue of St. Rock (San Roque). The saint may not be so popular today but he was in the past. Proof of which are as follows: Barangay San Roque has for its patron its namesake. Tabuc Suba Proper is under the patronage of San Roque too. And so is Benedicto and San Vicente. People in these barangays still go in procession around their barangays during this month of August singing the gozos of San Roque, Labing Bulahan, complete with a caller who would shout the next line of the gozo so that people can join the singing. (In those days there was no photocopy machine and besides only a few knew how to read – the reason why the caller shouted the next line so that people can follow the song while the procession moved from one house to the next.) People nowadays in those barangays may have thought of this yearly exercise as a lovely (and fun) alternative to being glued on television watching telenovelas for the rest of the year, but their ancestors did not. They were dead serious about this. Why? A little history will help us understand.
The reason is a teeny weenie culprit – a virus called smallpox. During those days our ancestors called it buti. Like everything else bad (there are good things too), smallpox was brought to our shores by a lone sick soldier coming from foreign soil, specifically from Mexico in 1574. He was carrying the virus. Coming from Europe, it went to Mexico and wiped out one third of its entire population. From there it followed the Acapulco trade route to Manila through that lone soldier. Smallpox even now does not have a cure. One can only prevent it through vaccination. It is said that in those days, once the disease is contracted the chances of survival is only at best 35 percent which explains why Msgr. Gamboa used to say that when it struck Jaro, every morning, during the onslaught of the disease, two men pushing a cart would call out on the streets (sin-o may patay da!?) for any who may have died during the night. They would pile them up in the cart and bury them.
In 1803, when the daughter of then Charles IV (Maria Luisa) fell ill to smallpox, the king commissioned Dr. Javier de Balmis to bring the vaccine to the Spanish colonies on state expense. The vaccine arrived in the Philippines in 1805. The people were so thankful to the king they erected a statue in his honor which can still be seen in front of the Manila Cathedral (Plaza Mckinley).
The joy however, was short-lived. The vaccine did not deliver the intended result of eradicating the disease. The American take-over made matters worst. With the surplus of vaccines from World War I, 95 percent of the inhabitants were inoculated but mortality rate increased 65%. Ironically the least vaccinated places reported the least death! In the 1918-1920 epidemic, out of the population of 10 million, 71 thousand died. The problem must have been in the vaccine itself. In fact some governments at around this time stopped compulsory vaccination and ironically the disease disappeared in their countries!
Though we have nothing to fear now from smallpox (it was eradicated as a naturally occurring infection in 1980), except when used as a biological weapon (which explains why even now the armed forces and police personnel of the United States are inoculated with the vaccine [an improved version]), the fear it created and the fatalities that occurred including the much ballyhooed panacea becoming the very instrument for the spread of the disease, people had nowhere to go except to have recourse to St. Rock. He is the saint called during times of epidemic. Well, Rock died because of an epidemic! He contracted the disease in Rome while serving the hundreds of people downed by an epidemic, when, as a son of a governor and a mere visitor in the city, he could have all the excuses to go somewhere else. But he served the sick and when he became sick himself he hid himself in the forest thinking that the people who would care for him would be better off caring for others rather than pay attention to him. And so a dog cared for him. Eventually he died.
St. Rock did not stop caring when he died. During the epidemic of 1918-1920 he cared for our ancestors when all hope for a cure failed. And that is why we continue to invoke his patronage in our time, what with SARS, A(H1N1) Virus, Dengue, HIV and the many deadly diseases that continue to struck fear in our hearts despite the many medical strides our generation made. By now we have come to realize that indeed, despite these many advances in every field of human endeavor there are still things we cannot control. Probably a reminder that we should be humble.
To the people of Barangays San Roque, Benedicto, Tabuc Suba Proper and San Vicente, for our sake, continue the good that you do. Invoke for our parish the help of Sr. San Roque. Encircle our parish with your nightly processions singing his gozos. When we could not join you physically, we join you in spirit and in intent, knowing that your holy endeavor continues to bear fruit in us even without us, even without our knowing. Thank you for praying to Sr. San Roque, thank you for praying for us as we join you in your hymn of praise – San Roque, labing bulahan!
Another discovery was made while repairing the cathedral. In the uppermost niche of the side altars we have correctly guessed that one contains the image of St. Rock. This statue is as old as the church itself and it has never been repaired so it is still in its original color. This is one of those that will not be repainted so that we can still retain proof that will indicate the age of the cathedral. The other statue on the left retablo was a bit elusive. Is this St. Augustine? Well, we all thought it was. After all this parish was founded by the Agustinians and it was only natural for them to put in one of the niches of the retablo, this time at the uppermost part of it, an image of their patron. But as the carpenters were taking it down (so that the retablo can be repaired) they found a statue of a pig beside it. Now that’s quite disconcerting – St. Augustine with a pig?! St. Augustine is usually portrayed as a bishop holding a church, or a staff, or a book and none of these were found on the image . . . but a pig!?
So off to the study table for research, and after a while we found out that the only saint with a pig as an attribute to the image is St. Anthony, Abbot. How a pig came to be part of the attributes of the saint is controversial and conflicting. Legend tells us that St. Anthony while in the desert was tempted by the devil who took the form of a ferocious pig. Well, pigs have been most often portrayed in the past as the symbol of indulgence, lust, greed, and gluttony. So this can very well be the symbol of Anthony’s victory over these temptations when he “tamed” the “pig” in him. No he did not suppress or cast away his greed, his lust and his tendency to be a glutton. They were still there in him but this time he tamed them, he took control of it. (But alas in our time a pig is a symbol of plenty and if there is anything sinister about it we call it by its other name – cholesterol!)
Another explanation of the pig is something associated with a skin disease called Ergotism or St. Anthony’s fire. In the past, without the benefits of antibiotics, the only known cure for this disease is to amputate the affected limb. But sometimes a generous application of pig fat on the affected skin and a devout prayer to St. Anthony, Abbot can bring about a miracle and a cure. Thus, St. Anthony is portrayed today with his erstwhile porcine friend. (There is even a procession of this saint wherein people in the town would throw slices of ham as the image passes by. How wonderful! I would like to be there with a basket on hand!) He is the patron saint of swineherds and called upon by persons with skin diseases. How it found its way on top of the retablo is a mystery which I would like to make a conjecture in relation to the other retablo.
The other retablo held the niche of St. Rock, the saint called during times of epidemics. The cathedral was built at the time when the outbreak of small pox was frequent and deadly and it shows itself as boils on the skin. Probably, just probably, St. Anthony, Abbot (called upon by people with skin diseases), with St. Rock in tandem (called upon during times of epidemics) were placed there as a way of warding off the disease in a desperate attempt when helplessness was paramount. Their placement there may very well tell the story of our parish, as the barangays surrounding Jaro (and part of Jaro) with their common patron St. Rock, tell the story of our not so distant past.
When I told this to two of my companion priests here in the cathedral their common reaction was, people in the past, when they decorate their church really think. They knew their saints, they knew whom to call in their time of need, they bannered around unashamedly their cry for helplessness, they were really a people of faith!
If you don’t have a permanent stiff neck like me, you can most probably still look up towards the dome. So please look up. It is the color of the sky, it is the sky when evening starts. The color and imagery draws inspiration from the ancient fathers of the church who said that every time we celebrate the liturgy “we stand in the evening of time.” Why evening? Why do the ancients refer to the celebration of the liturgy as a standing in evening of time. Evening of time because the day’s work is done, the work is finished and it is now evening. Evening because the morning has not yet come, evening because we await the morning. So when we celebrate the liturgy we stand in the evening of time – we stand at the evening of time when the work of Christ during the day has been completed and we stand in the evening of time as we await its fulfilment in the coming new day. That is why Matthew would preface our gospel today with the word six days later – six days later is the seventh day – Sunday. Among ancient Christians the seventh day is called the 8th day – a day outside the week, a day after the week is completed and a day before the new week commences, before the new day comes. And the new day is there when you look up at the back – the new day when everything will find fulfilment, when the Lord will come again in glory. If you study the ceiling of the cathedral from one end to the other end you will find in symbols and imagery salvation history. At the moment according to the ancient fathers we are standing at the center of the cathedral, beneath the dome, the evening of time. Christ work has been completed, the 8th day … but, but we still await the fulfilment and perfection when he brings us to glory. If you remember the last homily I gave, we are now in the yes but not yet – yes salvation is complete but not yet.
The transfiguration today is a reminder for us that perfection and fulfilment and the full realization of God’s plan will not be fully realized in this world and at this time. In the transfiguration we are given a glimpse of what is to come, a glimpse of the glory that is to come in the new day, so that we can remain strong and steadfast in our struggle, so that we can persevere in our effort, so that we will not be without hope. To expect perfection in this life and to expect perfection in this world is like Peter wanting to build three tents so that he can stay forever in the mountain of glory. But no, after the glimpse, after the inspiration we have to come down the mountain and walk toward the Jerusalem of our suffering.
To expect a perfect government, to expect a perfect church, to find a perfect priest, to make for oneself a perfect family, to insist on a perfect husband, a perfect wife, to require a perfect father or mother – these can only leave us frustrated and angry. The perfect society and the perfect person we all want to be can only be had when the Lord comes again in glory. At this time we can only hope for it, we can only dream about it and we can only work and toil and struggle to attain it. But to expect it now can only leave us frustrated and angry.
St. Paul has a lot of phrases to describe where we are right now – he would say creation is groaning. He would describe our existence and our experiences as the birth pangs, the pain of being in labor. Even within us, Paul said, we moan as we await the redemption of our bodies awaiting the time when we will be freed finally from slavery and share in the glory of God.
We have this seminarian whose name croped up every time we have a meeting. In a short meeting like ours if your name crops up, it is either because you are very good or very bad. He was very bad. What I mean is, he did so many bad things and it seems he cannot keep himself away from trouble. So many warnings, so many I am sorry, so many tears from his mother, also so many tears from his eyes but still he finds himself yet again in trouble. Now as he is about to graduate . . . still another one. And yet when I look at him I cannot pay attention to him because I am reminded of myself. Probably not the kind of trouble that he makes, but that same cycle of weakness, hard-headedness, the same enslaving attitudes that put us in trouble in our relationship with others, with ourselves and with God. Did my prayers, did my bible-reading, did my daily mass make me perfect, did these make me faultless – probably it made me a little better but not perfect. Thank God, he gave us the sacrament of confession!
Our existence is a process and we have to learn to wait. We will indeed work hard to make our country great, and free it from the culture of corruption. We will indeed work hard to cleanse the church, to rid it of sin, reform it and transform it. We will indeed work hard to free ourselves from the things that corrupt us and enslave us into sinful addictions. We will work hard to reach these things but we will have to learn to wait, and in waiting we will have to learn to accept its pain, its labor pains, the struggle to rid ourselves of sin.
In this second Sunday of Lent we are made to learn to wait because perfection is not the work of man but the work of God. It is God who will finally rid us of all that is evil in us and around us. It is God who will finally root out completely our vices, and everything that enslave us. It is God who will finally make our dreams come true. It is God who will bring us to and grant us perfection.
The LORD said to Abram in our first reading: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great.” It is a promise, a promise made to Abraham in the future tense. As it is right now, we stand beneath the dome of this cathedral, we stand in the evening of time. And from this place we may look forward from time to time so that we shall not lose hope, so that we shall not forget that the glory promised us will be ours when the Lord comes in glory, when the glory and promise of Easter shall finally be ours.