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Sunday, December 13, 2009

SIMBANG GABI....An offshoot of Filipino Spirituality and Western Christianity

One cannot fully grasp the meaning of Simbang Gabi without taking into account richness of the Filipino culture. The Simbang Gabi, which is an ancient Filipino tradition, may not make a lot of sense to some. However, for those who are open to multi-cultural challenges, understanding the spirit of Simbang Gabi would be a good start to generate genuine cultural dialogue in the community. 

The belief system of the ancient Filipino culture always upheld the "Otherness" of God as a Spirit, while maintaining the idea that the immortal souls of their ancestors were mediators between human and the divine. It is interesting to note that when the Spanish missionaries introduced Jesus as the God Incarnate -it was warmly received because it did not undermine the basic theological structure of the native belief system, but rather brought it to completion. The truth of the Son of God becomes the definitive manifestation of Bathalang-Maykapal (God the Creator).

For Filipinos, the incarnation of God is the highlight of each liturgical calendar. The act of God to become human is the most crucial event in human history. As such, for Filipinos, Advent must be celebrated not in abstinent disposition but in a festive atmosphere that contrasts the western way of observing it, which is often characterized by sobriety or contemplation. 

Officially, for Filipinos, Christmas begins on the 16th of December - the first day of the Simbang Gabi novena masses that lasts until the 24th of December. Fr. Anscar J. Chupungco, a renowned Filipino liturgist, almost perfectly described this rich tradition when he said that, "For nine consecutive dawns the faithful throughout the country flock to the churches in a festive mood. The Mass itself is anything but sober, contrary to what liturgists normally expect during Advent. The Gloria is sung daily, white vestments are used, flowers decorate the sanctuary, and musical instruments are played. Church bells are rung festively before Mass begins and in some  places a music band goes around town. "

Simbang Gabi is an Aguinaldo Mass that literally means "Gift Mass." The Bathalang Maykapal - the Supreme Being who is the origin of all things, both visible and invisible, deserves human gratitude, the gifts and sacrifices. Such primordial religious consciousness motivates Filipinos to wake up early in the morning for nine consecutive days to attend the Simbang Gabi in honor of the Mother of Jesus. Besides, the Philippines is a very matriarchal society that is culturally inclined to put Mary on the pedestal. 

Furthermore, Simbang Gabi is also known as Misa de Gallo, loosely translated as Roosters' Mass. In pre-industrial age, the crow of roosters served as the natural clock for Filipino farmers who had to till the land before the sun heats up the earth. The first rooster's crow at the crack of dawn, when darkness still cover the earth, alarms the farmers to prepare and rush to a nearby church for the communal celebration of Simbang Gabi.

It is remarkable how the native Filipinos preferred to hold the Simbang Gabi at a time when daylight breaks the darkness of night. Certainly, a creative visual artist could easily configure the aesthetic relevance of such time of day. But theologically, the breaking of dawn reinforces the strong Filipino notion that Jesus is the true light who comes to illumine the world in darkness. In fact, even at night when darkness is thick-- the light of Jesus prevails. Such a strong luminary attribution to Jesus is accentuated by a lighted parol -- a star shaped lantern that is often hanged in a window. For Filipinos, Christmas is incomplete without the lighted parol that stands for Jesus as the Guiding Star. 

Finally, the Simbang Gabi is as unique Filipino expression of faith that took centuries to evolve. It is as offshoot of Filipino spirituality and western Christianity. 

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