Today, or more precisely tonight, begins the wonderful tradition of Simbang Gabi. This is the last stretch of preparation for Christmas; the first stretch being at the start of “-ber” months, at least in the Philippines (notoriously known to be the longest celebration of Christmas in the world). Specifically, this religious tradition is the nine-day series of Holy Masses before the celebration of the birth of the Savior. It is meant to honor the Virgin Mother, who is the epitome of anticipation of Christmas, in in a devotional way called “novena”.
Though historically of Hispanic influence, this religious custom has acquired a uniquely Filipino fashion and has metamorphosed to more Filipino now than Hispanic. Simbang Gabi was originally known as Misa de Gallo or Mass of the Rooster. This term suggests the real time when Holy Masses are celebrated – when rooster crows before the break of dawn. This hour of the day is considered to be both as a compromise and as instilling a sense of sacrifice. It is a compromise for those who have yet to work throughout the day in the agricultural field such as the campesinos and sacadas. Before the sun would be up and scorch them, the missionaries during that time adapted this early hour for them to fulfill their “holy obligation” first. Likewise, it denotes immolation before a great gift is fully and finally given. To sacrifice an hour or two of sleep is actually nothing compared to the abundant blessings of Christmas. We got to sacrifice for blessings to be worth it.
Nowadays, Simbang Gabi has indeed become a real simbang gabi as it could already be celebrated in the evening other than just at dawn only. This is not to be considered as Anticipated Mass though (experts in Church Liturgy are having a hard time explaining and reconciling this issue, Sunday Masses are anticipated but not Simbang Gabi). Consequently, compromise and sacrifice had switched (had expanded actually) – from the earliest hour of the day to after office-hours, which is already at evening. Further, sacrifice has also twirled from cutting off the sleeping time early in the morning to extending the waking time until relatively late at night. Possibly, part of sacrifice could also consist in abstaining yet for nine days from one’s favorite telenovela which is usually shown in the evening. Just like during Kuwaresma perhaps, Simbang Gabi could also be that time to ponder of what we can abstain from in order to intensify the desire to behold the true gift of Christmas.
At this time too, at the beginning of Simbang Gabi, a faithful would already set in his mind a “something” that he believes will be granted if and when he does not absent from the nine-day piety. Curiously, that “something ” would either be of wealth or of health, of employment or of visa approval and much more commonly, lovelife. There is really nothing that prohibits such. The motivation could turn shady though. Furthermore, it somewhat trivializes our God-image that when one fails or absent then He forfeits the gifts. Preferably, we could just exert our best efforts and trust … and let God be God. In the end, it is not actually that “something” we wish for, but that “Someone” who is greater than us.
Quite in a subtle way, Simbang Gabi has also become counter-cultural. It has run against the too worldly preparations for Christmas. It is not unusual that commercial centers to extend shopping hours until midnight. It is not uncommon that parties could last up until the wee hours of the next day. One could be seen as not normal if he does not actually find satisfactions at the outpouring of material gifts and files of ampao. In all these and more, Simbang Gabi stands out to be spiritual in the midst of what are materials. It refocuses us on what is actually essential. It is striking the balance between what is pompous and truly religious. It could be worth mentioning, that this Filipino religious custom has already been recommended and now being practiced in several parts of the world. Needless to say, peoples of other beliefs are starting to have this sort of tradition as well – if only to counter the prevailing culture of commercialism and thus become more fitting and proper in the celebration of the season.
Finally, Simbang Gabi brings about beauty. Its moment is perfect at nighttime. That we have mentioned that its time is compromised is not just mere coincidence but also providence – divine providence, for that matter. According to the mystic-poet, reformer-priest, St. John of the Cross, darkness represents God whom St. John has described as “unknowable” hence dark. “Dark night (la noche oscura) narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to union with God.” Furthermore, it is at nighttime that we find rest and comfort because we are back in the fold of our loved ones after a long day’s toil. At this very time too that one could already be alone and be intimate with the beloved. Indeed, such a beautiful time to love and feel loved.