Today, predominantly Christian Philippines starts the nine-day Simbang Gabi or Night Mass, a devotional nine-day series of Masses practiced by Filipino Catholics and Aglipayans in anticipation of Christmas.
This is similar to the nine-day series of dawn Masses leading to Christmas Eve practiced in Puerto Rico called Misa de Aguinaldo. The Night Masses in the Philippines occurring at different times ranging – before the pandemic – from as early as 3:00 am to 5:00 am.
On the last day of the Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve, the service is instead called Misa de Gallo the Spanish for “Rooster’s Mass” which has an important role in Philippine culture.
The Simbang Gabi originated in the early days of Spanish rule in the Philippines nine years and three score, in 1669, after the turn of the 16th century as a practical compromise for farmers, who began work before sunrise to avoid the noonday heat out in their terraced lands.
Priests began to say Mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas more common in the rest of the Hispanic world, with the cherished Christmas custom eventually becoming a distinct feature of Philippine culture which has sharing a symbolic part.
Pope Sixtus V ordered that Mass be heard before sunrise since it was the harvest season, and the farmers needed to be in the fields right after the celebration.
White is the liturgical color authorized solely for Masses celebrated within the context of the novena; violet is used for any other Masses said during the day, as these are still considered part of the Advent season, the beginning of the liturgical year in Western Christianity.
Advent, which began on November 29 and ends on December 24, is a season of the liturgical year observed in most Christian denominations as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for both the celebration of the Nativity of Christ at Christmas and the return of Christ at the Second Coming.
Filipinos celebrate this Mass with great solemnity and the Gloria is sung. Time was when Simbang Gabi was also celebrated in malls, but this was eventually discouraged by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle except when a mall had its own chapel.
With the pandemic, the Midnight Mass celebration had been moved from 4.00 am to 6.00 am to comply with curfew set by the government – the hours imposed in almost all places to prevent people from big gatherings and health protocols, like social or physical distancing, still in force to avoid transmission of the deadly coronavirus which has infected and killed thousands since March this year when the government started to clamp a strict lockdown.
The Christmas story is recorded in Luke 2:4-19.
“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
But beyond the abundance of material gifts shared with family and friends and the newly coined best friends forever during Yuletide, what really is the true meaning of Christmas?
Theologians say Jesus was born to pay the price for the things we have done wrong: sin. Reason God the Father sent his only son to be the atonement for all our sins so that we would not be separated from God.
Theologists and scholastics say without Jesus, we would all die for our sins – the inherited sin nature from the first human beings God created: Adam and Eve. While being fully God and yet fully man, Jesus came into the world as an infant to save us all.
Most Christmas traditions vary in significance and symbolic meaning. For example, we exchange gifts because God sent us the most precious gift: his only Son. Also, three wisemen visited Jesus and brought gifts as well. A poem titled A Visit from St. Nicholas penned in 1822 popularized the tradition of exchanging gifts too.
Although people worldwide celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th, it was likely that he was born on in a different month and date. The church in the 4th century chose December 25th as it coordinated with the Solstice on the Roman Calendar.
Scholars say, like the award-winning journalist Heather Riggleman, that for Christians, the true meaning of Christmas is the celebration of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
We add, peace on earth and to men and women of goodwill. (AI/MTVN)