Joey Velasco’s “Hapag ng Pag-Asa”

This post was authored by Resty S. Odon. Reposting here with permission.

I first stumbled into this painting in an art exhibit in Glorietta years ago, and I must admit it stopped me dead in my tracks for not-readily-known reasons. The juxtaposition of two cultural ‘icons’ — the Christ and His twelve apostles in Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (a ubiquitous ornament in many a Filipino dining hall) and Metro Manila’s grimy street-children — was, to put it simply, unexpected. And I wasn’t alone in reacting as strongly. I just had to take a pause in front of it and ponder.

Of course the idea was not new: the closeness or communion of Christ with the poor and all forms of poverty (and suffering) is such that He’d go so far as to break bread with them. Put simply, Christ the Emmanuel (or “God-with-us”) is in the poor, ‘indwelling’ among them. The Bible, for those seeking Scriptural evidence, indeed contains the celebrated lines, “Blessed are the poor” and “If you do it to the least of your brethren, you do it to Me.” So where was the sense of breath-stopping novelty coming from?

Maybe it’s coming from the fact that we never thought of the dirt- and soot-ridden kids in our midst as Christ’s replacement apostles today, thinking of them instead as some irresponsible people’s problems to be solved, or ugly fixtures to be erased, or extra mouths to feed in a reportedly overpopulated planet running out of resources and teetering on the edge of catastrophic climate change — all unnecessary burdens in our busy, fabulous lives.

Maybe it’s coming from the disturbing idea that the streetchildren could be Christ’s children too, and horrifyingly enough, even His favorites. Not being one to romanticize poverty and the poor — I know poverty, and frankly (as old posts show) I have mixed feelings about the so-called poor because I don’t always see the face of God in them — I, for one, found Velasco’s painting to have planted a very revolting idea in me even as I know there’s something mystical to it at the same time.

Revolting because, being inured to the poor, separated from them only by a few degrees (or perhaps several), I refused to accept the very idea that God would love the poor so much even as they wallowed in poverty, or that the God of an embarrassingly rich world would be so in love with poverty itself when even the Book of Genesis claimed God was delighted in creation. Where exactly does hope lie in “Hapag ng Pag-asa,” literally translated “Table of Hope”? I preferred the lines often attributed to St. Ireneus, “The glory of God is to see man fully alive,” and the passage in the book of John, “I came that you may have life and live it to the full.” Being very active then in a Catholic charismatic Christian community, I just couldn’t imagine and accept a New Testament God who’d invite us to the unpleasantness and ugliness of want, of grinding poverty, of equating degrading deprivation with saintliness and Godliness (with the implication that living the high life is the height of evil).

Mystical because, at the same time, that’s what Christianity is all about, after all, when it comes to earthly suffering: that suffering is never what it seems to be, that it may have redemptive value — more so if it is the kind that really tries men’s souls, such as infuriatingly inhumane poverty.

Streetchildren as today’s apostles? Preposterous! But if we consider how all children are born pure and innocent and how they don’t ever deserve the punishment due to whoever ‘produced’ them in this amazingly unjust world and how poor children are the first to be sacrificed on the altar of human pleasure and convenience and envy and greed and uncaring and all evil born of fear and insecurity, why the heck not?

Wittingly or unwittingly, perhaps that’s what Velasco meant all along in “Hapag ng Pag-Asa”: All sufferers are in one way or another tragic-glorious Christ-like sacrificers-slash-accusers, all bearers of others’ iniquities and thus potential little messiahs. In the case of society’s most neglected members, they (street-children and their misery this side of purgatory) are the most convincing accusers, the most devastating indictment or proof of our modern-day collective crimes. The accusation is devastating because of the kids’ ironic, angel-like lack of desire to avenge themselves or judge us, the guilt-laden viewer. With Velasco’s painting, we end up judging ourselves. In the end, hope lies in the socially neglected souls’ fulfillment of their messianic mission. They are not begging for measly doleouts, which won’t last until tomorrow anyway; they are merely reflecting what we haven’t done.

But the combo meal of the revolting and the mystical in the picture remains hardly ever compatible even with that view. To my mind, poverty and all forms of suffering, if not chosen out of love and free will, are simply against God’s will. Call it the devil’s handiwork, call it punishment (by the devil?), call it self-inflicted suffering, but economic poverty (and by extension, all sickness and suffering) is simply intrinsically evil, the way I understand it. It must be rooted out from our midst, and if it persists, we haven’t been doing our job, we are simply sinning greatly, committing a special sin of omission: the sin of not working for a lasting social change, for a more just and humane world.

With poverty seen as social iniquity, a collective iniquity (those street-kids are most likely sired by Catholics), the street-children may then be seen as victims of poverty, of an unjust society. They are our victims. With nowhere else to turn to, their only hope lies in a God who would feed them at His table as He feeds the birds in the air and cloth the grass in the fields. Perhaps therein lies the real hope that the recently departed painter refers to.

Ultimately, therefore, “Hapag ng Pag-asa” is all about how we Christian believers, destitute in spirit as we all are, can — or should — put all our hopes in the one enduring treasure, the one recourse that really lasts, the only meal that satisfies.

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Posted in The Catholic Perspective
2 comments on “Joey Velasco’s “Hapag ng Pag-Asa”
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