It is December 16, once more; the Misa del Gallo (aka Simbang Gabi) begins! It is a feature of the Christmas celebrations every true blooded Filipino would miss if he celebrates Christmas outside the country. I know. I missed it for six years while I lived in the shadows of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. No amount of well-lighted Christmas trees, roasted chestnuts and cold-winter air can fill up the void of a Simbang-gabi-less Christmas. The Simbang-gabi will always be an integral part of the Filipino’s Christmas.
I have described this year’s Simbang Gabi from the perspective of the liturgy at the Bible Workshop. For the Filipino Church, December 16-24 is a novenario that helps one prepare spiritually for the feast of the Nativity. Roman Catholic liturgy already mark out December 17-24 as a special Advent period for meditating on the historical events that immediately lead to the birth of the Lord. During these days, the “O Antiphons” are sung in the liturgy, marking the days immediately preceding December 24, the vigil of Christmas. By a special permission from the Vatican, the missal of the Philippine Church has special prayers and readings for December 16, making it the first day of a special series of Advent-days that already anticipate Christmas. So if you’d pay attention, even the liturgy of the Simbang-gabi is more “Christmassy” than the daily masses from Dec. 17-24.
The Simbang-gabi is also meaningful for me because in one of those days, I celebrated my first mass as a priest. I was ordained on December 22, 1992 at the Basilica del Santo Niño and celebrated my first mass ever with the Augustinian contemplative nuns on December 23. On December 24, Thursday — Year C on the liturgical calendar — I celebrated my first Simbang-gabi at the Nuestra Señora de Gracia church (you know, the “Lumang Simbahan” at Guadalupe). The gospel reading then, as always, was from Luke 1:67-79, the Benedictus, Zechariah’s prophecy about his son, John the Baptist. An old priest finally accepts with faith the angel’s announcement to him, and for the first time after days of being mute, utters a berukah that celebrates the salvific work of God who has “raised up for us a Mighty Savior, born of the House of David”. And within this “blessing”, the priest, also explains the role his son will play in this new phase of salvation history, and the meaning of the name “Yo-hanan”, “Yahweh has shown compassion”.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John will be the prophet of this period of mercy and compassion. He will prepare his people with his proclamation of forgiveness of sins and prepare the way for Him who will be called “Salvation.”
I have always considered the Baptist as the type of the baptizing Church that prepares the world for the second coming of Christ. In addition, he is also the type of the male religious, the “friend of the bridegroom” who rejoices at the nearness of the bridegroom and whose life is a reminder of His coming. The Baptist was a prophet, but like Jeremiah and Ezekiel before him, he belonged to a priestly clan and so his ritual cleansing (the baptism he administered) was recognized by those who listened to him. I will never be like John the Baptist, but during these days when I could keep quiet, I remember that one of the things that led me to the priesthood was the sight of a lone priest (an SVD at our parish in Kamuning, QC) listening to the confessions of about a hundred children preparing themselves for first communion. “Lord,” I said at the time, “I wish I can help.” That was in 1979, just before December 8, when children have their first communion. Some days after my first Simbang-gabi mass, I received a note from Cardinal Sin telling me that I am allowed to hear the confessions of children. When I saw the note, I can only smile and say to myself: “Prayer granted.”
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