We were spending 10 days in Pampanga to celebrate the 100th anniversary of my mother-in-law’s birth. My brother-in-law and his wife were hosting us. One day, my sister-in-law had scheduled for us a pilgrimage through Tarlac, a province of the Philippines.
After a drive of 45 minutes from Angeles City to Tarlac, we arrived at the seat of the archbishop in Tarlac City. We entered the large Spanish-style church, reverently genuflected, and gazed around the inside of the church…there were belens everywhere. For non-Filipinos, a belen is a nativity scene, usually done in native style to reflect native tastes. Native, in the Philippines, might have a roasting pig on a spit, ducks, chickens, carabao, goats, etc. Mary and Joseph are probably wearing barong tagalog, a shirt hand-loomed from pineapple leaf fibers.
It was December 1, 2007. 7 weeks previously, my wife had a shoulder pain that wouldn’t go away. 6 weeks previously, a shoulder X-ray revealed a small lung cancer. 4 weeks previously, she had surgery to remove the cancer. 3 weeks previously, she came home to recuperate. Last week, she endured a 14 hour flight from the US to visit her remaining family and celebrate Mommie’s 100th birth anniversary. At any rate, at this point, we were so happy that it wasn’t worse. She lost half a lung. She had trouble breathing, and every breath hurt. But by God’s blessing, she was alive. (She still is, by the way, and thriving!)
Anyway, there were belens everywhere. In front of the police station, in front of city hall, every church and public building. We met Fr. Alex Bautista, director of the Diocesan Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, at St. Sebastian Cathedral in Tarlac City, he told us where we were headed-St. Michael the Archangel Parish in San Miguel, Expiatory Chapel in Gerona, Our Lady of Peace Parish in La Paz, San Nicolas de Tolentino Parish in Capas and Sto. Nino Parish in Bamban .
First stop was the Servants of the Risen Christ Monastic Community in the mountains about 20 miles northwest of Tarlac. We had a private mass, Fr. Alex presiding, the three of us attending, and an altar server from the monastery. The church here contains a relic of the true cross of Jesus, kept safe in the altar, and opened yearly in September for veneration. To see more of this monastery, visit http://tarlacmonastery.com/index.html .
After Mass and a walk around the grounds, we headed back down to ground level. We traipsed throughout the province, our journey (for pilgrimages are journeys) taking us to visit several other churches. Our tour guide, in his previous life an architect, showed us various churches where his hand had done renovation.
I think the most memorable of the seven churches we visited that day was the Church of the Sacred Heart. That’s my name for it, because on one side of the altar is a shrine to Our Lady of Manoag, beautiful in her own right, but on the other side was the shrine to the Sacred Heart. This statue was unique. I have never seen one like it, before or since. This depiction had Jesus pointing with one hand to his sacred heart, the other holding his cross up high. We spent a good deal of time here in prayer. My wife listened to our pilgrimage leader describe the symbolism of this statue-Christ pointing to his heart with love, but that love led to his dying for our sins on the cross. This was a show-stopper for my wife, who felt so battered after her surgery. Fr. Alex was able to console her and allow her to see what God had done to work good in our lives, even using her cancer to pull us so much closer together…
We prayed the rosary on the final leg of our pilgrimage, thanking God for this experience, for meeting this wonderful priest, for showing us how we were in His care. The final stop on our journey was the Expiatory Chapel in Gerona, Tarlac. The interior of the chapel is replete with symbols and images that remind us of the manner by which Christ suffered and redeemed us. The crucifix dominating the sanctuary portrays the body of Christ that endured unimaginable suffering, details on the ceiling call to mind the crown of thorns. As one leaves, one encounters Birhen ng Bucnol-Bucnol, patterned after Mary Undoer of Knots.
Her title is based on St. Iranaeus’ reflection , who in the light of the parallel made by St. Paul between Adam and Christ, created the comparison between Mary and Eve saying, “Eve, by her disobedience, tied the knot of disgrace for the human race. To the contrary, Mary, by her obedience, undid it.” And she continues to undo all our knots. One at a time. The image shows the angelic court where two angels stand out. One of them holds on to a ribbon, the ribbon of our life, which is full of knots (bucnol) big and small, loose and tight. They are the knots of our life, the present woes and struggles the Church undegoes today. These knots also represent the various sins we have committed that have damaged every relationship we have–with God and our neighbor. The good hearted angel looks to our Lady and holding on to the ribbon of life, presents to Mary, Birhen ng Bucnol-Bucnol and says “We trust you, Mother, you can help us. Undo the knots of life.” The Mary takes our lfe into her compassionate hands and with her fingers of mercy, goes on to undo each knot, one after the other, with motherly attention , love and tenderness towards her children. This ribbon becomes free of any type of knot, reflecting all the mercy and freeing power of her holy hands. The angel on the right shows us the untied ribbon to say “Trust her, place your problems and afflictions in her hands…”
(You can see pictures of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady, Undoer of Knots in my portfolio photos.)
We began again to trust the Lord, His Son and Mother again. This wonderful priest restored our faith in the priesthood on earth. We left back to Angeles City, deeply changed from this entire experience.