In the Catechism for Filipino Catholics, it is stated that PCP II insisted that to grow maturely in Christian faith meant becoming more truly and authentically Filipino (CFC 33). Simbang Gabi celebrated in Filipino way, therefore, succors growth of our Christian Faith.
Christmas is so much celebrated in the Philippines that it is considered one of the most important events every year. One of the highlights of Christmas season, aside from the gift giving tradition, is the custom of Simbang Gabi. Going to Simbang Gabi has become an instituted tradition in the Filipino culture. While trying at best to stay awake amidst the cool breeze and trying to listen to the mass itself as it unfolds at so early in the morning, Simbang Gabi has become so much a part of our lives as it has been part of the Christian Family tradition. Simbang Gabi, especially celebrated in Filipino way, also heightens the wonderful spirit of Christmas. As Fr. Lito Lopson of the Archdiocese of Manila puts it, the ways of the Simbang Gabi, with the “sumptuous Filipino dinner with the traditional puto, kutsinta, and bibingka,” reminds people of “how wonderful it is to experience Christmas the Filipino way.”
One way it helps in the growth of our Christian Faith is by emphasizing Mary being the Mother of God. CFC expressed that Simbang Gabi graphically portrays the veneration of Mary, which deeply marks the “mystery of the Incarnation, one of two central mysteries of our Faith in Christ, celebrated at Christmas (CFC 46).” Mary has been and remains the central inspiring force in bringing about a deeper evangelization of the masses of our people. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary has greatly helped many simple Filipinos to remain Catholics. Their deep devotion to the Mother of God has been the strongest force keeping their faith alive (CFC 48). Therefore, Simbang Gabi, which represents the reverence of Mary, fortifies our fortress, where we cling, to strengthen our Christian faith.
For most Filipinos, Simbang Gabi is also an act of penance because of having to wake up early to be on time to the 4 a.m. service for nine consecutive days without fail. It is also an expression of thanksgiving for each individual gives thanks for the birth of God’s Son, the King of the universe. Gifts of songs to God during the service and of presence during the early hour were symbolic of this thanksgiving. According to CFC, celebrating the Sacrament of Penance is really an “act in which the Church proclaims her faith, gives thanks to God for the freedom Christ has won for us, and offers her life as a spiritual sacrifice in praise of God’s glory, as she hastens to meet the Lord Jesus. (CFC1779).” Thus, the penance of waking up early to be present in the Mass and the expression of thanksgiving is an act of proclamation of one’s faith and an act of offering as a sacrifice for God’s glory.
Filipinos showing their trait of being meal-oriented during Simbang Gabi also reveals the essential trait of Jesus Christ, which is being the host of the Paschal Meal, the food, the bread of life and even the guest in every gathering. In some places, commonly in provinces, generous families sponsor breakfast of hot chocolate or coffee and kakanin or lugaw for the congregation, partaken after the Mass. A crowd of people form a fellowship, some strangers to each other, and share whatever food is served. Serving guests with the best that we have is an inborn value to Filipinos, rich and poor alike. Even with unexpected guests, we try our best to offer something, meager as it may be, with a warm welcome (CFC 37). According to CFC, eating together in table fellowship with the presence of the risen Christ, “Communion,” in other words, constitutes the core-witness of the early Church as a Eucharistic community. So we Filipinos feel “at home” in breaking bread together with Jesus. PCP II’s “spirituality of social transformation finds in the Eucharist not only its full nourishment but also its total prayerful communion with the Lord of salvation and liberation.”
In these ways then, Simbang Gabi celebrated in the Filipino way, mutually acts with Christian faith and also intensifies, deepens and strengthens praxis of Christian faith. However, celebrating Simbang Gabi coupled with Filipino culture sometimes lean to the extremity that some parts of the culture become perversions to authentic Christian Faith. This is what we call Folk Catholicism. We dwell and cling too much on the aspect of culture that we leave out the dimension of Faith. If we are not too careful in using Filipino culture to respond to the introduction of Catholicism in the Philippines it will eventually be a perpetuation of false doctrine, deformed standards of morality and erroneous forms of worship.
An example of how Filipino culture distorts Christian doctrine is the traditional belief that completing the novena means God would grant the devotee’s special wish or favor. Filipinos who wish for grand gifts for Christmas or for a prosperous new year to come, attend the nine consecutive masses of Simbang Gabi without fail, believing that God will give them special approval. This may be attributed to the excessive adherence of Filipinos on the sentiment of reciprocity. Because Filipino culture eternalizes this idea, we, almost at all times, equate sacrifice to reward. In turn, this part of our culture eventually rules out the true essence of Simbang Gabi.
Also, endorsing amenities of the Simbang Gabi and making the event too glamorous, the traditional Filipino way, overshadows the real message of Simbang Gabi. The association of Filipino kakanin with Simbang Gabi brings people to the Church not to mainly attend the Mass but to have a taste of the luscious puto bumbong or bibingka. Our being meal-oriented in this light does not help but impairs our praxis of Christian Faith. Setting up very grand decorations in the church also alters the people’s motive for attending the Mass. People come to the church to hear the priest’s homily and to view the bright lanterns and lighted parols. The aroma of the rice cakes maundering around the church and the radiating colorful lanterns hanging on the walls even distract the people from listening to the priest. Moreover, for some people, like delicacy vendors, gift items peddlers and parol makers, the advent of “Simbang Gabi season” is more of a commercial event than a religious celebration. They anticipate the coming of it because it is a great time when they can pose their stands outside the church and earn money.
Furthermore, most of us, Filipinos, take Simbang Gabi as an act of penance excessively that we draw a blank on what the genuine meaning of Simbang Gabi is. We become so much concerned about our Christian welfare, like saving ourselves from going to hell, to the extent that the revelation of God is overlooked.
Now, for most Filipinos, going to Simbang Gabi remains an abstract ritual and “head knowledge,” because of “Filipinizing” it too much that its authentic significance becomes obscured. There are very few devotees who give answers connected with their personal act of Faith in God when asked why they attend the Mass. It is almost unconscious, automatic and deeply-ingrained cultural habits. In turn, we take our faith for granted and do not question it.
To live a healthy life of Faith is to free oneself from custom or routine. Theology is a must that needs to mature. And our Faith in God will never mature and grow unless we undertake a serious and deliberate examination of these realities. We must know and find out what the real importance of Simbang Gabi is and liberate ourselves from the bondage of culture that blurs our Catholic Faith.
We should then ask now, what is really the importance of Simbang Gabi? What role does it play in deepening of our Christian Faith? What does Simbang Gabi tells us that concerns our Faith in God?
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