Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Mass of St. Sylvester

Nicomedes 'Nick' Marquez Joaquin was one of the foremost Filipino writers in the English language. A legend in both the literary and journalism circles, Joaquin was the undisputed master of the written word. His prose was baroque, heavily influenced by the exuberance and passion of the Spanish language, which many of his colleagues (and indeed himself) later called 'Joaquinesque'. Nick Joaquin grew up in the Manila of yesteryears, when it was still very much a Spanish city. For him, Manila was the intersection of Europe and the Orient, exceedingly rich, and with a peerless cultural heritage to boot. In fact, much of the writer's stories take place in the City which he loved, hated, cherished, adored, criticized and defended.

Joaquin was something of a lagend himself. On one of his last lectures before his death in April 2004, Joaquin purportedly went on stage, dragging a huge cooler of beer inside. The lecture was a mere ninety minutes long, but the students who came out of it testified that, before he had even reached half of it, the cooler was already empty. And the 87 year old Joaquin was still craving for more.

Recently, in my literature class, I had to report on Joaquin and his infamous 'Tropical Gothic'. A collection of the author's short stories, it proved to be an easy, though often verbiose-- yet still very rewarding-- read. One story, in particular, caught my eye, the Liliputian (in length) 'Mass of St. Sylvester.' A mere nine pages in length, the story delved into the obscure legend of St. Sylvester, whom legend tells us baptized Constantine the Great, descending to earth from heaven to celebrate the first mass of the New Year. Joaquin had built for himself a reputation as a cerebral writer, who dissected the writhing entanglement that is the meeting of Christian civilization with the barbaric paganism of the past with the dexterity and skill of surgeon handling a scalpel. Indeed, most of Joaquin's works deal with the coexistence of the primitive and the civilized in the human psyche, and 'Mass' is no exception.

- - -

As the story goes, at the precise moment when the clock strikes twelve to herald the New Year, St. Sylvester, accompanied by an angelic host, descends to earth once more and celebrates the first Mass of the year in the cathedrals of the world. For hundreds of years, Manila and Goa in India were the only two cathedral cities in the Far East; hence, for Manilenos, to literally welcome the saint was a portentous and marvelous thing. Manila was a gated city back in the day; indeed, much of Old Manila is called Intramuros, that is, 'within the walls'; and it is within these walls that the Spaniards of old governed these fair isles. The greatest and best gate, the Puerta Postigo, was reserved for the use of the viceroys, archbishops, and governors general alone; and it is through this gate that the pope saint enters the city.

At the gate, he is met by St. Andrew,who is accompanied by St. Potenciana, the city's two patrons. And they are in turn met by Sts. Dominic and Francis, the guardians of the ever loyal city. St. Sylvester comes, arrayed in the finest cloth-of-gold, his head adorned by the tiara. Holy knights suspend a pallium above him, as he is borne on the soldiers by yet more knights in the sedia gestatoria. To his side, archangels swing censers of gold and wave peacock fans, as the Book, the Mitre, the Staff and the Keys are carried before him by a company of seraphim. These are in turn heralded by cherubim, who announce the passage of the pope saint by braying on silver trumpets.

Below the cherubim fly the Hours, carried by steadfast wings, while below them walk the Days, clad in silver and sable, playing softly on their viols. Behind the throne, the 12 angels of the Christian year. The first three angels are clad in green and crowned with pearls, carrying incense, gold and myrrh-- the angels of the Nativity. Next come the angels of the Lenten season, robed in mournful violet and crowned with rubies, and these angels carry the instruments of the Passion. Next come the angels of the Easter season, clothed with lilies and crowned with gold, carrying triumphal banners. But the last three angels are clothed with the purest flame and are emerald-crowned, and these bear the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost.

At the Puerta, the heavenly host prostrate themselves while the pope saint proceeds to open the gate with his keys. And as the gate opens, there is a pealing of bells, as the city's patrons come forth to meet the divine embassy. The bells continue pealing throughout the mystic hour, until the pontiff rises to give the final benediction. But as soon as the clock strikes one, the heavenly host disappears, and silence returns where only moments ago there was triumphant jubilation.

According to legend, those favored by even so much as a glimpse of the procession was granted length of days-- and it is said that anyone who witnesses the Mass in whole would be able to live a thousand years more. In Joaquin's story, there is an old man, Mateo by name, who is rumored to be a sorcerer, and who plans to seize this opportunity to prolong his life. It is rumored by the devout that Mateo was hundreds of years old, and that before the Spaniards came, he was a priest of the old gods and wielded immeasurable power. So it is said that he consulted his fierce and savage gods-- and they advised him that, save divine dispensation, none may see the whole of the Mass. Determined, however,Mateo seeks to witness it for himself, one way or another.

And so the crafty Mateo hid himself in one of the retablos in the cathedal, and with him he had a big of limes and a knife to keep him awake. True enough, the procession entered the church, and he saw the heavenly multitude-- the guardians of the city and those who have loved Manila in the past-- gathered about the altar, itself surrounded by a sea of lights. Mateo watched as the saint rose to give the final benediction-- but something catches his eye. Was that another pair of eyes that stared back at him from the back of the pope saint's head? And Mateo-- his organs slowing, his skin hardening, his breathing tightening-- turned to stone.

- - -

It is easy to imagine this story as a Christianized version of the Roman tales of Janus, the two-faced god, who opened the New Year. Joaquin grew up in a time where Catholicism was still very much 'medieval' here in the Philippines; it was a faith that still taked of wandering images of the saints, the secrets behind novenas, how much years a letter of prayer of this-and-that can remove from Purgatory, heck, there were even stories told around this time that the Pope said Mass lying on his back while being fanned by five sacristans! While these stories were mostly unwritten, they served as a kind of 'Golden Legend' to the people; it was popular religion, which did not necessarily have to be dialectics and moral dogmatic theology.

Sadly, in the advent of the Second World War, the Manila Cathedral was destroyed, and the story grew less and less in popularity since then (it has sinc been rebuilt). Joaquin's stories delve into popular religion of his days, and he handles his material deftly, and concisely. The tadtarin festival in honor of St. John the Baptist, for example, was only revived in the 1980s after an absence of several decades. In my opinion, stories such as these actually help the faith, instead of hinder it. It is just sad how many of these culturally and religiously significant practices have almost been forgotten.


Andrew said...

St. Andrew is Patron of Manila? Cool!

But should the Mass of St. Sylvester be seen again today through the veil, it would probably be very different. Gone would be the tiara and the sedia and all the pomp and ceremony.

But still, there's cause for hope as no pope is bound by the juridical acts of another, so St. Sylvester can ignore Paul VI's reforms and retain the pontificals. =)

I've always liked tha lagenda aurea. I've always thought them very inspiring and in this age, we sure could use some inspiration!

Thanks for the story.

Archistrategos said...

You're welcome, Andrew. I'd like nothing more than to see a visual representation of this story myself, but sadly, none exists at the present. Perhaps in the future, hehe.

Anonymous said...

this short story of nick juaquin is worth reading... i've read it a while ago and there are much more details that will fascinate every reader.. it was said in the last part that an american soldier after the war had witnessed the majestic apparition after the war.. so creepy... just as he was about to shoot the scene in his camera, st. sylvestre gave the final blessing and suddenly, the wrecked walled city returned to rubbles and ruins.. everytime i remember it, it makes me shiver... knowing that this is a true statement of the eye witness, the american soldier whom nick joaquin interviewed himself..

this legend of our city is worth cherishing..

p.s. i wonder if i too can see this apparition myself, now that the cathedral is rebuilt. i wonder what the feeling could possibly be.. :)

Anonymous said...

one more trivia to tell...

st. andrew, as told in the story is the "patron" of manila.

In all fairness, the titular patroness of the city is the Immaculate Conception. St. Andrew is rather called the DEFENDER of the distinguished and ever loyal city, when the city was spared from chinese revolt on the eve of his feast celebrated in Paranaque, where he is the titular patron.

may we not confuse him as the patron of Manila for that title should only be attributed to the Blessed Mother, La Inmaculada Concepcion.

Archistrategos said...

It's definitely one of my fave stories about Old Manila, Anonymous! I'd love to see it, too, but then again wala na ang mga puno sa Plaza Roma, kaya baka wala na rin akong pagtaguan :p