Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 24 December 2016


“Simbang Gabi” is one of the Catholic traditions I most admire and I find most beneficial—it really prepares one spiritually for Christ’s birth. The nine days of waking up at 4:30 in the morning to be at Mass at 5 (I am a fast dresser—and would you believe that period includes a bath and a half-mile walk to church?) may be a pain in the behind, but that’s all a part of the preparation.

I remember when Simbang Gabi started at 4:30 a.m., and I can only be grateful for the decision to move it to 5 a.m. This is in my parish church, the Santuario de San Antonio, in Makati.

What do I like about the Simbang Gabi?

Not necessarily in the order of importance, there is the singing. Different choirs sing their hearts out for the churchgoer each day, and they make it easy to see why it is said that singing is actually praying twice. The Alleluias, the Glorias, the great Amens, the Christmas carols, are all magnified when sung with the help of the choirs. Sometimes I imagine that the angels and saints, even Christ Himself, give approving, “well-done” nods at the performance. And it makes my hair stand on end. Even the congregation seems to be singing their hearts out, too. I usually sing one octave below the rest, but during Simbang Gabi, I let it all out, cracking voice and all—knowing that I can’t actually be heard amidst the collective din. I know God understands. And since it is still dark, I feel anonymous.

Attending daily Mass at 6:15 a.m., one sees the church only a quarter, or less, full. But the first 5-a.m. Simbang Gabi Mass, the Santuario de San Antonio was bursting at the seams. Fr. Reu Galoy, our parish priest who celebrated the Mass, jokingly observed that usually, the crowds would thin out around the middle of the Novena, and the congregation obviously agreed with him, because there was general laughter. As he predicted, the crowd did thin, but it was, after the eighth day, still standing room only in church. Makes me feel proud to be a Christian, and a Catholic. There is hope.

The third thing I like about the Simbang Gabi, I kid you not, are the homilies. Sometimes they are five minutes long, and sometimes they take more than 20 minutes. But I appreciate the messages. Let me share some of the nuggets I retrieved this year.

Christmas is a season of lights—on the trees, on doorways, on windows, everywhere. When you see the lights, please remind yourself that Jesus is Light.

The gospel naming the 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus? The one that puts you to sleep halfway through? Well, the nugget there is that God’s time is very different from ours, and usually takes very, very long. So don’t expect instantaneous response (or be disappointed that your prayers are not granted asap). An interesting sidelight is that this genealogy includes four women in the first tesseradecad (set of fourteen), which is unusual, especially since the women mentioned were not exactly role models. In His time.

Another two nuggets have to do with Mother Mary. She is usually portrayed as meek and mild. Hah! Little we know. Another perspective that I got is that Mary, after all, carried and cared for the Ark of the Covenant (the sole place for the atonement of sins, Jesus Christ), which required strength, and decisiveness, not only obedience.

The other Mary nugget I obtained in the Simbang Gabi was with respect to the “Magnificat,” Mary’s Song. I didn’t know that it is considered by some to be the most revolutionary document ever written. I was used to just hearing, not really listening to the words. But take another look, and listen, folks. It calls for political, economic and social revolution. Mary is not so meek and mild, after all, but passionate, proud, enthusiastic. Awesome.

That’s just a few nuggets. See what you get from Simbang Gabi? I have the Franciscan friars to thank for all these, and more: Father Reu, Father Tasang, Father EJ, Father Robert, Father Adam.

There’s more: the fellowship after Mass with free coffee, hot chocolate and bread. Make sure you go to Simbang Gabi next year. Merry Christmas!