By Antoine Mushagalusa, sx –
As the Season of advent unfolds and we move forward to Christmas, I have been reflecting upon a remarkable event that portrays in a very particular way the Filipino experience of waiting for the coming of the Lord.
Starting from last Monday, December 16, people all around the Philippines began attending the so-called Simbang gabi, a series of dawn masses for immediate preparation before the Christmas event. In fact, Simbang gabi is not merely a Filipino originality that has no connection whatsoever with the whole Christian Tradition. It has a historical significance, which is very much rooted to an earlier religious Tradition going back to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, where it was known as the misa de gallo or the mass of the rooster. Literally meaning the Night worship, Simbang gabi marks the beginning of the liturgical novena that starts on December 16 and goes all the way to Christmas.
Since the beginning of the Advent season, following her tradition, the Church has reminded and exhorted Christians to live accordingly the advent custom that is to fulfill a number of spiritual and practical requirements such as prayer, almsgiving as well as penance practices in preparation for the coming of the Lord. On their way, the Filipino People have likewise answered to their religious and cultural tradition by attending massively the dawn masse celebrations all over the country. Is this an inculturation? This is what we will discover in the following lines.
The Simbang gabi practice emerged from the Spanish colonization and is today a very strong and deeply rooted religious custom in the Philippines. While we do not know with certainty the reason of its origin as Christian practice here in the Philippines, we can nevertheless appreciate its effects as religious custom in the Filipino Christian life. Indeed, spiritually, it has the merit of helping people to grasp the true meaning of the Christmas celebration. People who attend the Simbang gabi mass learn to anticipate, perceive, welcome, and experience at the very moment the soon to come King of Peace, the rising sun which enlightens the whole world, Jesus Christ.
As such, Simbang gabi transforms people’s lives, habits and understandings. Indeed, as pointed out in the first three Sunday’s Gospels, the Advent message can be summed- up to the call to be awake, to be watchful, and to listen to the crying voice in the desert which leads to a witness of life and a personal experience of Christ. Thus, the Simgang gabi celebration invites every Christian family to leave a space for a Belen, to make a Christmas tree and to set the Christmas lights and decorations while waiting for the coming of the Lord. This, however, does not consist merely in exterior preparations; it requires above all an interior disposition, which enables people to welcome Christ in their daily life.
Personally, this is my second time to celebrate Simbang gabi with the Christians of St. Francis Xavier Parish. Undoubtedly, Simbang gabi has a positive effect for the people and their pastors as well. Surely, it is always impressive to see thousands of people waking up early in the morning and getting ready to attend the early-morning Eucharistic celebration. Can this be a sign of hope? As far as I am concerned, this is more than a sign of hope; for, people firmly break the silence of the night and the routine of their lives so as to truly express their faith to the God present in human history. This is particularly evident when, every morning, people sing the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, such an unusual habit in the Catholic Tradition during the Advent Season.
To sum up, Simbang gabi is a beautiful religious experience for the Filipino as well as a challenge for those who do not have such religious tradition. For instance, as an African, such religious tradition helps me to prepare myself in a different way than I was used to during Christmas novena. I thus learn to celebrate now the Christ who came, who comes and who is still to come again, and whose reign will never end. Hence, more than a memorial of a past event, the Christmas celebration fosters an individual encounter with Christ, which leads us to a very personal friendship with him. Let us then take advantage of this opportunity so that we may grow stronger in faith to celebrate and live Christmas, which brings Christ present in our lives.
My best wishes to all, Merry Christmas!