The Birth of a Book in the Manger
On a rainy Saturday last week, I entered the Metropolitan Cathedral of Naga. I had not been to this massive church since the wedding of a niece. I have contemplated its blackness, which is a product of a botched preservation work. I have even pondered why its façade had been cemented all over. We wanted to protest such invasion of inglorious aesthetics but the politeness of a small city however false it could be had stopped us.
There is also the reaction of those who come for the first time to Naga. Unknowing how the cathedral had been for several years, which was a magnificent fortress of stones, these visitors begin to marvel at the sight of what they call “the black cathedral” of Naga.
And so, I laid it to rest, my complaints about this church. Anyway, I consoled myself with the thought that I do not really own the church. All this talk about how the people are the church stops when some of us begin to rant against the very structure of which we are supposed to count ourselves as children.
And yet, rains can bring us to anywhere. That night, the cathedral became my warm shelter. For the first time since my Naga Parochial days, where the Cathedral, by default, was our school chapel, I was looking around, up and down, conscious of the majesty of the ceiling, the pillars seemingly beyond measure, each of them a refuge for saints of all persuasions.
This was the Roman Catholic way of presenting life: The lovely Angels, degendered (are they men? Are they women?), welcoming the faithful (for that is how we are called), their wings gilded and their faces a summation of Western pulchritude. Christ was standing, on the right. It was Christmas and the Son of God was not yet born in our Christian albeit human reckoning but He was there burdened already by the cross.
As I moved on, female saints bearing signs of their greatness and sacramental rewards dominated each pillar. From afar, I could see already a depiction of the Nativity. Before reaching the foot of the altar, a giant icon or icons of Pieta loomed over those whose preference for their prayers were the left side of Heaven.
We know the power of Michaelangelo’s Pieta. Art historians always tell us and big books on the arts carry this information that the grandeur of the Virgin Mother’s sorrow and love is apparent in how the great artist has depicted the sorrowful Mary. She is made into a giantess, her lower torso and her legs splayed monumentally so as to create an awe-inspiring swath of clothing wide enough to carry the dead Christ. Of course, the genius of Michaelangelo never makes the aberration in dimension negative; rather, a positive space is created to tell the scope of a magisterial narrative.
Like Christ, suffering at the entrance even when we knew that he was yet to be born, Mary in this cathedral, was dolorous although she was yet to give birth to One whose passion and death would form one of the enthralling histories of religion.
After behind the Pieta was the humble but lovely tableau of Mary and Joseph. The father of Christ stood, his cloth royal in green, with golden rococo design on the bodice of his dress. Joseph was bearded, not so young, handsome in the Latin way. He did not look like the swarthy Carpenter we were told in our catechism class. To Joseph’s right was Mary in a kneeling position. She was garbed in old rose, her face the gentlest of Marian faces I had ever seen up close.
I moved around and stood behind Mary. Her blue-gray cloth flowed back, a splendor in draping technique. This made Mary even from behind a character of such strength. From that position also, I saw Joseph and his profile. Everything worked up to that point: you had two figures seemingly waiting for something to take place. But an object stopped the storytelling, and this was a huge jar behind Mary.
Place anything in a sacred tableau and the audience would find a reason for symbolling. What did the jar stand for? A water supply in that poor stable for animals? A foretelling of what Mary would induce from her son during a wedding in Cana? Perhaps, I was overthinking. Religion always did that to us: to crave for symbols where there were only decors and designs.
I went back to the frontal part of the tableau. Then I realized what this Mary and Joseph were thinking about: A book! An open book was in the manger. I know Jesus would yet be born in this intriguing drama of a God-made-man. An empty makeshift crib in a lowly manger would have been enough. Was this the artist’s way of telling us the notion of the Word Made Flesh?
Pardon me! I seek refuge in the many wonderful and dense reading of the mystery, which took place during the first Christmas. A book in the manger reduces the poetry of salvation into a prosaic tribute to publishing. And the awesomeness of faith is thereby reduced.