By Father Ben Alforque
St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish, Riverside
The Filipino community of our parish is once again sharing with us the faith-expression of their Advent and Christmas celebration, Philippine-style: the Simbang-Gabi. It is thus timely to explain what this Simbang-Gabi is all about, and the way it is celebrated.
Simbang-Gabi literally means “Evening Mass.” It is a nine-day novena in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of God. It prepares the people for the birth of Christ on Christmas day. This novena begins in December 16th, and in the Philippines, is celebrated at 4 AM (Misa de Gallo=Mass when the cock crows), and culminates with a Misa de Aguinaldo (Mass of the Gift) at midnight of the 24th of December. Jesus Christ our Savior is God’s Gift to humanity and to all of creation through Mary!
Because we are celebrating the Motherhood of Mary in view of the Birth of Christ, ergo, our celebration is festive, full of Christmas decors and songs, where the Gloria is sung and the liturgical color of the vestments and of the altar is white.
(On the other hand, the Advent season is our celebration of our expectation of the Lord’s Second Coming in glory. It is penitential in tone. Therefore, the color is purple - except for the Third Sunday of Advent whose theme is joy, where the color rose may be used - and the Gloria is not sung.)
In the Philippines, the streets are lighted up with lanterns (the parol), signifying the star that led the wise men to Jesus. In the villages, streets, homes and chapels are decorated with fresh fruits, like bananas, and passersby may just freely pick them for food. The people are roused from sleep by the tolling of the church bells at 2:00 am, and a band may roam around the village streets to proclaim a new day of joy. Churches and chapels overflow with people, as whole families attend the Simbang-Gabi. The festive mood goes back to the homes after the mass, as people partake of their breakfast delicacies.
Historically, Simbang-Gabi dates back to 1587, when a Fray Diego de Soria asked the Pope for permission to hold Yuletide masses outdoors, because the church could not accommodate the multitude attending the dawn masses. Why dawn masses? So that the fisherfolks coming from the seas, and the farmers leaving for their farms would have a common time to celebrate the Eucharist and the novena together, at daybreak! When Pope Sixtus V decreed through a papal bull that these dawn masses be held annually in the Philippines, the Simbang-Gabi tradition was born. Here, Bishop Barnes has allowed Filipino communities to share this faith-experience to all. Maligayang Pasko!