Today begins the delightful Advent novena of Simbang Gabi, a tradition from the Philippines, where Mass is celebrated in the darkness before dawn for the nine days leading to Christmas.
Over the years, I’ve read a number of explanations of the origin of Simbang Gabi, with slight variations. This seems a good one:
Different Christian cultures have adapted a way in celebrating the season of Advent. In the Roman Catholic tradition, it is the time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. For Filipino Roman Catholics, the Simbang Gabi (literally means night worship) is a typical way of preparing for the great feast of Christmas. This religious tradition was brought to the Philippines by the Spanish evangelizers through Mexico. Originally, it was popularly known as Misa Aguinaldo. The “Aguinaldo” means gift, which is peculiar to Christmas. That is why, the faithful wake up early morning for nine days before Christmas to join in the celebration of the dawn Mass. The faithful make this their “Aguinaldo” to God for the great gift of Jesus. The practice can also be understood as the preparation of the faithful to receive from God the great gift or “Aguinaldo” of Christmas, Jesus, the Savior of the world. Simbang Gabi is also called Misa de Gallo or Mass of the Rooster based on the time of day it is celebrated; at dawn, at cockcrow.
Liturgically, the practice of Simbang Gabi had its origin in the Rorate Masses (Gaudencio B. Cardinal Rosales, D.D., Archbishop of Manila. Guidelines on the Celebration of Simbang Gabi in the Archdiocese of Manila, 2010) which takes its name from the first word of its introit (Entrance Hymn): “Rorate, caeli, desuper, et nubes pluant iustum,” or “Drop down dew, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness.” It is a Mass celebrated early in the morning in honor of the Virgin Mary in which the interplay of light and darkness convey the meaning of Advent.
This leaves out the part about shared breakfast, which, based on my tiny sample, is an important part of the tradition.
And so, today, the first day of the novena, the boys and I got up at 5:00 a.m. and headed over to St. Francis of Assisi Church together with a few hundred of our Filipino brothers and sister in the dark for Mass and an always interesting Filipino breakfast: chicken soup seems to be the one mandatory item, followed closely by hard-boiled eggs, white rolls and individually wrapped slices of American cheese. There can be and usually are other items, but these seem invariant.
The chicken soup is usually pretty tasty. Since various parishes and other Filipino groups take turns doing breakfast, one is never quite sure what one will get. Today’s soup was thick with rice and had saffron in it along with little bits of chicken – delicious. Sometimes, we get what I suppose is authentic chicken soup, wherein, it seems, entire chickens with bare minimal amount of prep are boiled until they fall apart – tastes OK, but beware the bones and gristle. Fried sausages and ham, sometimes cooked in sugar or honey, and various gelatinous sweet regular solids rounds out the options.
Since we’ve been doing this for a number of years now even though we are not Filipino nor part of any of the sponsoring organizations, we are recognized, greeted by name, any missing family members (not all of us make it every time – 5:00 a.m.!) asked after. It’s a very welcoming group.
The mass, complete with songs and mass parts in Tagalog, is of course the high point. To see several hundred people up at that hour and filled with good cheer as they prepare a straight way for the Lord is a great comfort and inspiration.