The belen, or crèche, is not an uncommon sight this time of year, especially in a country such as the Philippines that is deeply reverential to the spirit of the season and the figures and events the belen represents. But while most Filipinos are content with displaying store-bought reproductions, some make a tradition out of taking it upon themselves to build such displays of faith from the ground up.
In this regard, perhaps no other community in the country is as united and profoundly entrenched in the yearly act of belen-making as the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P), whose passion for which is slowly making its way to its neighboring establishments and beyond, with media outlets starting to take notice. The university co-organizes the Belenistas de Ortigas, an annual belen competition among business establishments in Ortigas Center initiated by UA&P, in partnership with Ortigas Center Association Inc. and Barangay San Antonio, Pasig City. In keeping with the time-honored Filipino tradition, Belenistas de Ortigas has challenged members of the Ortigas Center community to create scenes of Christ’s birth and display them in front of their respective buildings. The competition envisions transforming the business district into a “Belen Town,” which not just serves as a tourist destination but also promotes Christian values among the members of the community.
For the last several years, the university has also held annual inter-office contests on which staff members can make the best belen—a veritable showcase of skills that has only grown more competitive each year. The university truly has belen-making down to an art form and has become a tradition that eludes almost no member of its community, least of all the university president himself, Dr. Jose Maria Mariano, who has been a prime instigator and a technician of the craft. Nearly every year since beginning his tenure as president in 2000, Dr. Mariano has devoted hours from his busy schedule during the Christmas season to roll up his sleeves and join various members of the faculty and staff in creating the centerpiece of the school’s displays: its biggest and most elaborate belen in the heart of the school chapel, the Stella Orientis Oratory. The name translates, fittingly enough, to “Star of the Orient,” and much like how the Star of Bethlehem led the Three Kings on their voyage that fateful night, so does Stella Orientis bring people from nearby homes and businesses to UA&P to take a gander at the spectacle of the belen.
Dr. Mariano started his career in academe as a mathematics educator while taking up his graduate studies at King’s College of the University of London. He soon pursued his doctorate degree in Philosophy from the University of Navarra, while concurrently teaching mathematical economics in the Spanish university. It was there that he cultivated his predilection for art, particularly sculpture, finding time during his studies to practice sculpting before eventually taking himself and his avocation to the Center for Research and Communication, the founding institution of UA&P where some of his works can be seen on display. A dedicated academic who witnessed and helped the university expand from a single building in the 1990s to the bustling campus it is today, Dr. Mariano continues to indulge in his artistic side by working on the university’s belen while inspiring those around him to take part in a cultural and spiritual custom.
But the belen isn’t just there to beautify and to edify, as Dr. Mariano emphasizes its more important, underlying significance to the people who see it. “It’s not just there to be beautiful, it’s there to help people pray,” he says. “That’s also why we encourage everyone in the university to put up a belen in their workplaces: to remind them to set aside some time during the Christmas season to just take a moment to reflect and to pray.”
In the weeks before the belen’s completion, Dr. Mariano and his group often stay at the university for extended hours working on the project which, for the sake of maximum effect, calls for secrecy before it is finally unveiled to the general public. Most of the belen is handmade, crafted out of wood and cloth transformed into recognizable shapes with careful planning, artistic skill and a dash of what Dr. Mariano prefers to remain “trade secrets.” The president makes regular trips to the belen’s temporary holding area while in its production stage, hidden away at a section of the school usually reserved for carpentry and maintenance.
Dr. Mariano takes special pride in his and his group’s handiwork and is adamant that the unfinished belen remains there and be moved to the oratory after work hours and out of plain sight to keep it as a surprise for Mass-goers the following day. This usually necessitates waiting long into the night, and that after hours of work, but the end result—the look in the faces of awestruck children, the hushed tones of their parents explaining the stories of the various figures—is worth it. This year’s theme, in particular, reminds viewers of the grandeur and significance of the event it depicts by surrounding the Holy Family with an audience of several angels bearing witness to the glorious scene.
Stella Orientis Oratory is open for anyone to visit and see for themselves. Just follow the star and take a gander.