Day 1: Simbanggabi

16 December 2009 Misa de Gallo
Isaiah 56, 1-8; Psalm 66; John 5, 33-36

Note: the Misa de Gallo readings are special. So I can’t, at this moment, find a link.
There are movies that begin with the ending, and the rest of it is a flashback. These movies tell us that the incidents that led to the climax is as important as the ending itself. I believe this is what Simbanggabi is to many Filipinos who religiously try to be part of this tradition. We already know the climax of the 9-day novena: Christ’s birth at Christmas. But what spurs us to come to mass as early as four in the morning? Jonathan Velasco, a world-renown conductor says this on facebook: “But it’s the thrill of going to church at that crazy hour, and finding that all your neighbors also got crazy and woke up at that hour, that makes it nice. hahaha! There was a year we sang in all 9 dawn masses at 4am!” The “craziness” is thrilling itself; and we find it enjoyable to be crazy!

What for? Because the ending is ‘crazier’ — it is a celebration of what is surprising in our faith and in our lives. Think: a mother who is a virgin (ha! Who among you are mothers and virgins at the same time? ha!ha!ha!); a God who becomes human (while Presidents hold on to power, our God opted to come down His throne); or a child who is God! In Kung Fu Panda’s memorable words, we are preparing for some awesomeness! Because Christmas is a story of the impossible becoming possible. For the unthinkable and the unimaginable becoming real and true. The word, “becoming” is emphasized: the process is as important as the climax. The verb tells us that the possibility did not happen in a flick of a finger, but incrementally. That to be possible, the impossible will need time and our participation in the transformation.

Many Filipinos come to Simbanggabi with a great need. They pledge (panata) to God that they would sacrifice some precious sleeping time to come to mass as a proof of their sincerity. And hoping that God would see their desires, He would fulfill them. When we acknowledge our need for God, we are drawn closer to Him, as the needy clings to the source of hope. Thus, the Simbanggabi tells us that it is good to be ‘in need’ — even if our desires seem impossible and crazy. I have a friend who completed the 9-day novena on December 2007 for a ‘crazy’ need: to pray for a boyfriend! A year later, she got her wish. On August 2009, I officiated their wedding. Call it whatever, but in faith, nothing is impossible with God.

Second, we come to the early dawn masses to celebrate the awesomeness of family and friends. We have observed that the excitement of the Simbanggabi lies in coming to mass together with a group of people we love. The gradual nine-day event tells us that the awesomeness of family and friends carry with it the years spent together, in life’s highs and lows. Two days ago, a group of elderly ex-Jesuits came to carol their batchmates (Jesuit priests) at the infirmary. This is truly BFF (Best Friends Forever!) To see these guys singing to their friends who are ill is simply awesome.

Finally, we come to mass to celebrate community. In the first reading from Isaiah affirms that we become a house of prayer when we are just in the sight of God. St. Paul tells us that we become one despite our differences when we have only one love. Christmas draws us to that One and Only Love. The experience of unity amidst diversity — in opinion, in political position, in color and race, in gender and orientation — is an experience of awesomeness. Think again of the throng of people everywhere coming to worship!

But we still have many desires. We are waiting for God to fulfill them. In the Philippines, the desire for peace and order becomes more intense. Simbanggabi proposes that we have to be part of God’s plan for peace to be achieved. The process includes both God and humanity. In other words, the “nine-day” novena is the whole process of fulfillment. The readings are exactly designed for it. (See here for a diagram.) Applied concretely, it is the steps we take to make peace possible in war-torn Maguindanao. If God grants boyfriends/girlfriends, He will grant peace — but we have to show how serious we are in wanting it. Because the opposite is true: some people would rather be in power and would hold on to it even if it means war.

When we express our love in many ways this season, we are surprising our love ones. We let them taste what is awesome. And to many of us, experiencing the love of others is amazing. I believe those who are heartless are those who didn’t feel the surprise of love. So while we are amazed at how our children are growing up, we must surprise them constantly with love. So that when the temptation to be bad comes to their minds, their experience of love will conquer it.

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