By Juan L. Mercado

MID-ADVENT FOUND me driving  down  a humid Tondo side road to reach a hospice. What has that got to do with “A Christmas Carol”?  This i, the 1843 classic Charles Dickens wrote from ideas gathered during night strolls through cold London streets?

We  were in Tondo  to hand over a letter for a Missionary of Charity sister. Many  call them, “Mother Teresa nuns”. . But in the star-lantern  festooned front yard, one bumped against Dickens’ world of Christmases past, present and  yet-to-come.

About  25 kids, from 3 to 8 years of age, milled around the yard.. In blue-lined sari-habits, three nuns were filling with medicine bottles thrust forward by scrawny, prematurely-wrinkled mothers.

“Tuberculosis,” explained Sister Rose Magdalene. “Poverty runs deep here.” TB spreads like brushfire in slum homes, on short food rations and shoddy sanitation.  Reminds you of Bob Crachit, underpaid 15 shillings a month, by Ebenezer Scrooge.

It’s one thing to run your finger down statistical tables and note  that TB afflicts 450 out of every 100,000 Filipinos. (It’s 204 for Thais. ) But it’s gut-wrenching to see that statistic etched into a three-year-old’s  pinched features.

“(These are) immortal creatures, condemned without alternative or choice, to tread paths of jagged flints and stones by brutal ignorance” and an avaricious elite, the 31-year-old Dickens told  the Manchester Atheneum. By then, he had the novels “Oliver Twist” and  “David Copperfield”  under his belt.

Yet, “Christmas is the only time I know of, in the long calendar year, when men and women seem, by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely,” he wrote.

Even those flush with cash see tend to  “people below them, as if they were really fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys….”

Dickens wove that theme into A Christmas Carol. And it resounded as Sister Carrisima led us through various Spartan wards, scrubbed clean by nuns and volunteers. “No smell, sir, so unlike our public hospitals,” murmured our driver.

“But you should see these early mornings,” the nun replied while gently adjusting the blanket of the comatose patient, picked up earlier from a hovel. “Some wet and move in their beds,” she explained stroking the man’s forehead. “It takes time to clean up.”

Did Blessed Teresa of Calcutta engrain into her daughters the gift of understatement? That formation shapes 19 young women from Korea , Indonesia and Philippines , now novices in this house. As professed nuns, they’d committed their lives to healing victims in a society of padlocked hearts.

In the women’s ward, Sister Carr isima pushed back stray locks on a sleeping aged woman and patted the patient’s hand in the next bed. Iniwan sa kalsada, she explained.  “Abandoned on the street.” Three beds away, the woman had her face seared by acid, splashed on by an abusive husband.

In the next room, a woman sat talking to herself, endlessly folding a handkerchief. “She’s a rape victim, so traumatized,  she screams when touched,” the nun explained. “We have other victims of violence here.”

In the open space, 20 aged patients were being fed. And in a large hall, three young sisters led students packing Christmas packets of rice, soap, some sugar and food items, saying the rosary as they worked. “These sisters  just made their vows,” Sister Carrisima explained. “One will be returning to Korea soon,” she said.

In Missionary of Charity houses in Binondo, Cebu, Aklan, Calbayog, Davao and other places, Mother Teresa nuns go from house to house. They pinpoint the dirt poor who’ll get these small packages. “In every act of kindness, you come face to face with God,” Teresa of Calcutta taught.

As in Dicken’s time, our social order is one where jewels, luxury gas-guzzlers and bank accounts, padded by graft, gauge self-worth. So, these packets are nothing to that illegal logger who lights his cigars with hundred-peso bills. Coco-levy magnates or Leichtenstein bank account holders would sniff at them. Ask Imelda.

And what would these efforts mean for Joc-Joc Bolante and Virgilio Garcillano  with their patent lies, equally-tainted backers, and rouge military? Is their business “bound on other journeys”?

“You were always a good man of business,” Scrooge told the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. “Business?” wailed the Christmas Past wraith, shaking his manacles. “Mankind was my business… mercy, forbearance, benevolence was all my business.”

Christmas today comes, as it did 2000 years ago, to a society where the political, economic and military elite seek only to conserve their loot. Herod and Tiberius Caesar – and Scrooge – did as much. Few share their creativity, time and possessions to enable those of skimpy means and confined horizons to rise to “sunlit plains” of humane lives.

A thin crust of Scrooges toss up leaders equally blind. Few have the insight to see that the poor have as much right to what is available. They act as if sharing with the less fortunate is “humbug.”

If we “open our shut-up hearts freely,” we’ll discover they’re “hard as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” Jonathan Powers writes in “Scrooge Is Here.”

“Give love on Christmas Day,” the car radio blared on our way back. But Christmas past, present and future blend into one for those who daily serve the crushed and the broken. “And they found the Child, with Mary his mother,” the ancient story goes. (E-mail: juan_mercado@prime.net.ph)