9th Simbang Gabi: Zechariah’s Christmas Song

We are now on the last Simbang Gabi, the last day of the Christmas academy.

Congratulations to all those who finished the Christmas academy and completed the Simbang Gabi. May the grace of a more meaningful Christmas be with you.

For those who have not completed the Simbang Gabi, oh well, there is always next year.

I remember the first time I completed the Simbang Gabi. It was on a remote barrio in Sorsogon on a December, 1981 mission by the Redemptorists headed by Fr. Manny Thomas. The barrio had no electricity, no phone, no internet, and definitely no malls and bars. But we had fresh fish from the sea, bountiful fruits, vegetables, rice and root crops from the land. Most of all, we had a happy and united community celebrating Christmas and having a complete Simbang Gabi for the first time in their lives. It was one of the most meaningful experience of Christmas in my entire life. It was celebrating christmas at its simplest and most original spirit.

For the past 9 days/nights, through the liturgy and readings, we went back to the original Christmas story. It’s so easy to drift away from the original Christmas story amidst all the material trappings and commercial layers that the world had manufactured around Christmas.  Thus, it was essential during these 9 days Simbang Gabi, to go back and retell over and over again the original Christmas story.

Every Christmas, the church calls us to be amazed again at the wonderful mystery of God’s entry into history and the human race. Every Christmas is an invitation to a re-enchantment of the incarnation of God. By God’s coming into the world, we believe that the world can be changed by God’s activity and God’s love. The world can be a different kind of place—a place of peace and justice, a place of welcome and wonder and a place of mystery and surprise through Jesus our savior. If we really allow the Christmas story to touch the very depths of our being, it will change us at a very deep and personal level.

Tonight the Christmas story concludes with a hymn–the great hymn of Benedictus (meaning ‘Blessed’ from its opening word in Latin). The Christmas story has given us three songs which have become staples of the churches Advent-Christmas liturgy: the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimmittis (which we will hear during the Feast of the Holy Famiy, the Sunday after Christmas). Sadly, but not surprisingly, these hymns are not generally identified as Christmas songs.

Zechariah’s song, the Bendictus, is sung or said every day in the Divine Office at the end of Morning Prayer or Lauds. Luke puts it into the mouth of Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and father of the newly born John the Baptist.  Benedictus marks Zechariah’s re-found voice after the inability to speak throughout Elizabeth’s pregnancy. It calls his son to be a preparer of the way of the Lord and when we meet the adult John later in the gospel we find him drawing on Isaiah’s language of a road in the desert which requires a certain levelling out fill in the valleys, lower the mountains, straighten the crooked roads and make the rough ways smooth – a veritable highway for God.

Like the magnificat, benedictus has become so familiar to us that we tend to miss its revolutionary nature.  It calls us to re-think, re-evaluate and prepare the way for the values of God’s kingdom. As the Benedictus tells us, John was to shine a light on those walking in darkness and whilst a light in the darkness can be a comfortable thing it can also be about bringing things into the light, exposing what is wrong, unrighteous, and unjust. This was and still is an uncomfortable message for those who have many possessions, those who rely on their own worldly success, those who ignore the needs of the poor and hungry those who have no concept of their neighbour let alone a desire to love them.

Benedictus ends with one of the most beautiful lines in scriptures which may serve as the summary of the Christmas Good News:

“In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

The dawn has already broken upon us! And this we shall commemorate in the solemnity of the nativity of our Lord tonight!

Let us join Zechariah in singing his song of salvation as we bow down before our savior Jesus Christ and allow him to be reborn in our hearts.

8th Simbang Gabi: God is Gracious

Welcome to the 8th Simbang Gabi.

We are now into the 8th day of our Christmas academy.  I hope our reflections in this Christmas academy continue to deepen your understanding of the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus–the original event of Christmas.

In our readings today, we hear about the birth of John the Baptist. In the first reading, the prophet Malachi speak about one who will go before the coming  day of the LORD.  We take these words to point to John’s role as a precursor for the coming Lord Jesus.  The psalm also describes a relationship similar to the relationship that John had with GOD, that of being obedient to GOD and desiring to learn the ways of the LORD so that he could prepare the pathway for the LORD.

In the gospel today, we heard of the birth of John. There was a bit of a wrangle between Elizabeth the mother and the neighbors and relatives about the name of the boy.  The neighbors and relatives wanted the name Zechariah following tradition to name first born son after his father. But Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted him to name John.  The name John did not come from the parents but from God. Like Jesus (Mt 1:21), the name of John was given to his parents by the angel Gabriel before he was born (Lk 1:13).

The name John, in Hebrew “Yehohanan” or “Yohanan” means “Yahweh is gracious.” God was gracious to both Elizabeth and Zechariah who gave them a child even in their advanced age and Elizabeth’s barrenness.

We have also experienced a lot of barrenness on many levels in our lives. We have experienced many failures and lots of fruitlessness and desolation in our lives.  Yet it is in these desolate realities where God is being born within us. Just as God made possible the birth of John the Baptist despite his barren mother, our desolation and barrenness are less as a curse than as a preparation for something special.

Indeed, John will become a symbol of the merciful kindness of God, preparing the people for the coming of plentiful salvation in Jesus Christ. From birth until his martyr’s death at the hands of the tyrannical Herod, John’s life will be fully dependent on the grace of God.

John’s life shows us a life that is fully dependent on the graciousness of God.  This is living life to the fullest. John showed us that living life to the fullest is to fully give our lives to others and to God.  The more we decrease our attention and attachment on ourselves and increase our attention and focus on others and God, the more we live free and fulfilling lives.

Like John, our lives is a preparation to the plentiful redemption in Christ. Like John we are all precursors for the coming greater glory of Christ that will give life to others.

This Christmas, above all, like John, may we truly experienced and remember the graciousness of God despite all the failures and frustrations in our lives this year.

7th Simbang Gabi: Mary’s Christmas Song – the Magnificat

Inay Maria ng Magnificat (Mother Mary of Magnificat)

Welcome to the 7th Simbang Gabi. 

We are now into the 7th day of our Christmas academy. I hope our reflections in this Christmas academy continue to deepen your understanding of the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus–the original event of Christmas.

In today’s readings we hear words of thanksgivings from both the first reading and the gospel. It is a celebration of thanks to the Lord, who does great things to humble people who trust in God. In the first reading, from the 1st book of Samuel, Hannah gives thanks to God because he has given her a son, Samuel. She dedicates him to God. Samuel will be a very great prophet of the Lord. In the gospel, Mary, a young, humble, unassuming girl boldly sings out her joy and thanks to God who will upset the world’s values through Jesus, the Son to be born from her. With Hannah and Mary we sing out our joy and thanks to God.

Both of these thanksgivings, on the lips of women, mothers, anticipate what God will do through the agency of their sons. Both image God’s saving activity concretely as toppling unjust structures and disarming oppressive regimes. “The bows of the mighty are broken,” declares Hannah, and Mary echoes, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones.”  “The well-fed hire themselves out for bread,” Hannah says, and Mary answers, “He has filled the hungry with good things.” These are songs of the anawim, the poor who have no recourse or resource of their own and must wait for God to save them.

Indeed, these thanksgivings echoes the Christmas carols of joy and gratitude we hear during this season. The magnificat, the song of Mary, however, expresses more than just gratitude and joy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler, comments that the magnificat of Mary has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth.[1]

In the magnificat, Mary becomes an emblem of hope and a sign of God’s care for the oppressed and downtrodden throughout the world. Through Mary, most virgin and purest of all, stripped of all power, wealth, fame, prestige and position, the power of God was proclaimed in the magnificat.

Mary’s magnificat highlights the social repercussions of Christmas. Christmas cannot be separated from the situation that Mary and Joseph found themselves in at the time of Jesus’ birth. Today it cannot be separated from the real situation in our our own communities and the larger society especially of those who live on the margins. Christmas is not an escapist occasion that numbs us and just let us forget all about the pain and sorrow in this life. The joy of Christmas is not the fleeting joy that serves as an escape from the sad reality of our lives, which sadly has been the scourge for many of our people come every Christmas.

We cannot just ignore the underlying political and social implications of Christmas. The new king wasn’t born in a palace, his birth wasn’t hailed by heralds fanning out to every corner of the empire. Instead, his family were refugees: They couldn’t find room at the inn; Mary gave birth in a stable; and the child had to rest in a manger. The message of Christmas is, inescapably, a message about the poor, about the little ones, about those who are pushed to the margins of society. They are the ones God chooses, the ones He looks to first. It is no wonder that the first people to experience the coming of the savior were shepherds, those lowly, uneducated ones who lived among the animals

It’s been the convention of many Christians to turn Christmas into a safe holiday that asks little of us. But this ignores the prophetic, subversive life of Jesus. Jesus brought the margins to the center and welcomed outcasts to the table.

In a homily he gave on Christmas eve in 1978, the recently canonized saint, St. Oscar Romero, the martyr bishop who was murdered while celebrating mass due to his active defense and solidarity with the poor in El Salvador, proclaimed that we need to become poor in order that we can truly celebrate Christmas:

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

St. Oscar Romero

In another homily St. Oscar Romero gave on December 3, 1978, he expounds on the social implications of advent, of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ into our lives.

Advent should admonish us to discover
in each brother or sister that we greet,
in each friend whose hand we shake,
in each beggar who asks for bread,
in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union,
in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves,
the face of Christ.
Then it would not be possible to rob them,
to cheat them,
to deny them their rights.
They are Christ,
and whatever is done to them
Christ will take as done to himself.
This is what Advent is:
Christ living among us.

The celebration of Christmas is an invitation for us to sing, proclaim and live Mary’s magnificat.  We can truly sing and live the magnificat if like Mary we humble ourselves to the power of God, to allow God to be God. Like Mary we can proclaim the power of God by becoming poor in material and spirit, living in solidarity with the poor and marginalized and our active involvement and participation in the building of God’s new social order which Mary sang in the magnificat.

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow).

6th Simbang Gabi: Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer)

The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2008
The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2008

We are now on our 6th Simbang Gabi or, as I call it, Christmas academy.

I hope our reflections in this Christmas academy continue to deepen your understanding of the original meaning of the Christmas story–the incarnation of Jesus.

We continue the gospel reading from Luke from yesterday’s text. As soon as the Archangel departed from Nazareth, Mary was no longer the same woman as before. She was radically transformed.

The first thing that the newly transformed Mary did was to embark on a journey, to go on a mission.  The annunciation experience was too great to bear alone. She couldnt pass on this event not to share the good news. This life-changing event also inspired Mary to serve and be available for her elderly cousin, Elizabeth who despite her old age, was pregnant, likewise, through the grace of God.

The Angel didn’t command Mary to go to help her cousin Elizabeth. He didn’t even suggest that it would be a good thing for her to go. He just stated the fact that Elizabeth was pregnant and that was enough for Mary to spring into action.

Most of us take for granted that the journey Mary took to reach Elizabeth was a long and arduous journey. Many of us only focus on the spiritual side of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth but fail to appreciate the equally significant physical dimension of the visit.

Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth covered a distance of between 128 and 160 kilometers. She took off from Nazareth, a Galilean city west of the Sea of Galilee and travelled to Ein Karem, the Judean village where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. In Mary’s day, a person traveling by foot could cover about 32 kilometers per day. If Mary walked to Elizabeth’s home, it would have taken her four to five days straight. If she accompanied a caravan, she would have arrived in about three days. Luke does not mention whether Mary may have gone on foot or as part of a caravan. We don’t know if she traveled alone or whether St. Joseph accompanied her, or SS. Anne or Joachim.


In any case, such a journey would have been dangerous, especially for a young girl alone. By embarking on this journey, Mary demonstrated her courage as well as her desire for confirmation of God’s plan. She overcome any fear she may have had about surrendering to God’s call on her life or facing the possible danger involved in confirming his will. Such complete surrender freed her to act in confidence.

At the sight of Elizabeth, Mary’s tiredness was turned to joy and greeted Elizabeth, very likely “shalom,” which means peace in Hebrew. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greetings, three joyful things happened: John the Baptist leaped in her womb, Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit, and burst out saying:

“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment
of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary was able to bring incredible joy to Elizabeth and to the fetal John the Baptist, because she was bringing Christ.  The Holy Spirit inspired Elizabeth to bless Mary among all women because of the blessed fruit of her womb and because of her faith that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled. In other words, she was blessed because of Jesus and because of her faith in her embryonic saviour and son.

In going to Ein Karim, Mary became the first missionary, the first bearer of the Good News–the official term, theotokos–which is the first title accorded to her by mother church. Despite being pregnant with Jesus, the word incarnate (logos), in her womb, she journeys through the hill country to the town of Juda. English theologian John Saward refers to this image of Mary on her journey to Elizabeth as the “Logos carrying Virgin.”[1] In this journey, Mary became the first disciple and missionary of the Logos (Word). Indeed she is the Theotokos—bearer of God in our world.

What is this story telling us about Christmas?

Christmas is not just a celebration but also a call to mission. The incarnation of Jesus overflows with life, joy and goodness that it cannot be kept just to ourselves. Furthermore, the Chrismas spirit should not be lived only at this time of the year. As the song goes, araw-araw ay magiging pasko lagi (everyday will always be Christmas). And another Christmas song goes, at magbuhat ngayon, kahit hindi pasko ay magbigayan (from now on, even though it’s not Chrismas, we should give to one to another).

The Christmas spirit must be lived, shared and proclaimed to others, to the whole world, throughout the year. Like Mary, we are all called to be Theotokos—God-bearers. We need to share the good news of Emmanuel, God is with us, not just with our lips but also with our feet, with all our heart and soul. We need to share the good news that our lives is “impregnated” with God despite all the despair, gloom and hardships, our sinfulness and the messines of our lives.

In response to Elizabeth greetings, Mary, filled with the Spirit, will break out into that wonderful hymn of praise that we call the Magnificat, a hymn that will proclaim the message of liberation Jesus will later deliver by word and action. We will see this tomorrow.

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow).

[1] John Saward, Redeemer in the Womb: Jesus Living in Mary (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), 120.



(For an audio version of this reflection, click here)

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear of the annunciation story of Mary. We have heard this story many times already that sometimes we do not get surprised anymore by the wonder of the story.  The story is about a simple poor Hebrew lass called Mary who freely accepted the mystery and wonder of God’s incarnation—God ’s entering into human history in flesh and blood. This unprecedented event in human history became possible because of Mary’s fiat—yes.

Mary represented humanity through her yes to the plan of the infinite God to enter the human race. Mary represents humanity’s deepest longing and long awaited coming of God. Mary’s yes represents all who freely accepted God’s wonderful gift of love and mission into their lives.  Mary’s wholehearted response is the model for all believers.

Still sounds abstract and esoteric? Let me borrow from outside the religious language—pop music. Let me use one of my most favorite song from the Beatles, Let it be.

Let it be is a Beatles song composed by Paul McCartney.  It is about Paul’s mother named Mary who appeared to him in a dream.  So Mother Mary in the song is not the Virgin Mary, although Paul was obviously aware that most listeners would take it that way. Paul’s actual mother died when he was young. In his own words, Paul reminisces on the inspiration behind the song,

I was going through a really difficult time around the autumn of 1968. It was late in the Beatles’ career and we had begun making a new album, a follow-up to the “White Album.” As a group we were starting to have problems. I think I was sensing the Beatles were breaking up, so I was staying up late at night, drinking, doing drugs, clubbing, the way a lot of people were at the time. I was really living and playing hard …

One night, somewhere between deep sleep and insomnia, I had the most comforting dream about my mother, who died when I was only 14. She had been a nurse, my mum, and very hardworking, because she wanted the best for us. We weren’t a well-off family- we didn’t have a car, we just about had a television – so both of my parents went out to work, and Mum contributed a good half to the family income. At night when she came home, she would cook, so we didn’t have a lot of time with each other. But she was just a very comforting presence in my life. And when she died, one of the difficulties I had, as the years went by, was that I couldn’t recall her face so easily. ..

So in this dream twelve years later, my mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: “Let it be.”

Let us examine the words of the song or better still sing the song.

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be

And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom
Let it be

Let it be may not be a religious song but it has meaningful parallelism with the annunciation story of Mary in the gospel today.

In the song, Mary, Paul’s mother comes like an angel whispering to him the words—let  it be. “Let it be” means to let go. Let it be are words of comfort meant to remind us not to think about sad things too much, to accept the bad things that have happened that we cannot change.

But this is not where the song stops. The song goes on to lift the listener up and out of his own life. Soon the song is singing about all the broken hearted people in the world, people who hate each other or are at war.

And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer
Let it be

For though they may be parted there is
Still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer
Let it be

This time the words “Let it be” takes on a more profound meaning.  “Let it be” does not only mean to just relax about our problems and accept bad things.  It means “let it happen”—let a new world, a happier and more peaceful world, become a reality.

In the annunciation story, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced to her God’s wonderful plan of salvation by becoming human himself. God does not want to force his way into humanity, so God needed a human being who will freely allow God to be born in her womb. God chose Mary. Mary freely said yes to God’s sublime plan.

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary let God’s plan be done in her life. She did not interfere with God’s nature to offer their life and love to humanity. In other words, she did not refuse God to be God. Neither did she refuse to be herself. For Mary realized that she can only experience the fullness of her humanity by transcending her own needs, desires, and ambitions and connect them with the greater mission that God has in store for all humanity.  This is Mary’s let it be. Let God be God. Let human be human. Let go, let God. This is freeing!

Mary’s let it be, gives us an important lesson this Christmas. We should stop domesticating, controlling, and manipulating the spirit of Christmas. The center of Christmas is not about us but about God who gifted himself to us by being one like us.

We should give up defining the meaning of Christmas by commercializing and materializing the joy of Christmas. We should stop domesticating the spirit of Christmas by concealing and sugarcoating our personal and social sins. We should stop manipulating Christmas to our own agenda but let God’s sharing of his life inspire us to share our talents, time and resources especially to the poor and oppressed in society. We should return Christmas to Christ. We should once again put God at the center of Christmas. We should let Christmas be!

Mary is the quintessential embodiment of advent. Advent is waiting and preparing for the coming of the Lord. Advent is longing for God and letting God be God in our lives by opening the doors of our life to God’s love and life.

We are the new Mary’s of today.  Mary has given her yes.  Now it is our turn.  We need to see our lives woven in the story of the incarnation of God.  We are called to participate and cooperate in God’s wonderful plan and mission for all humanity.

Only then can we truly experience the meaning of Christmas.

4th Simbang Gabi: Samson, John the Baptist and the Christmas Story

Welcome to the fourth Simbang Gabi, or as I have called it, Christmas academy.

The Christmas story is primarily the birth of our Lord God-became-human. But the birth of Jesus is foreshadowed by many other birth stories. These birth stories depict the birth of a child, which in human condition, were impossible cases, but realized because of God’s grace and intervention. These birth stories are slowly building-up and anticipating the greatest birthday of all time: God-becoming-human.

The birth stories in today’s readings involve elderly women who had never borne a child, in short, barren or sterile. In a society where having children, especially boys, was a wife’s primary duty, to be unable to produce children was a terrible shame. It was the ultimate failure.

Through God’s grace, however, their barrenness were seen less as a curse than as a preparation for something special. What is special to these stories is that the child to be born will have a very special role bestowed upon them by God. It is like saying that God had played a role with the mother in the birth of this child. He was, in a way, God’s child.

Today we hear two annunciation birth stories–the birth story of Samson and John the Baptist. Both stories shows the mighty power and blessing of God which will become the source of strength for these two characters.

In the First Reading, we hear of the birth of Samson. Manoah his father came from Zorah, in the territory of Dan. (Dan was one of the twelve sons of Jacob.) The wife, whose name is not given, is sterile – the greatest curse a married woman could suffer in her society.

When the child is born, his mother names him Samson, a word which means ‘sun’ or ‘brightness’. This could be an expression of joy over the birth of an unexpected child or refer to a nearby town, Beth Shemesh, ‘house of the sun(-god)’.

Samson grew to become physically very strong but in other respects very weak, particularly where women were concerned. And it was a woman, the notorious Delilah, who would bring about his downfall.

Samson can be seen in a way as a symbol of his people. The misdeeds of the Israelites are often pictured by the prophets in the light of the foolish pursuit of foreign women, some of them of ill-repute, and falling victim to them. During the Judges’ period, the people constantly prostituted themselves in worshipping Canaanite gods.

The passage ends with the words: “The child grew and the Lord blessed him: and the Spirit of the Lord began to move him.” This final remark refers to his future feats of strength. Compare this with the words about Jesus after he had returned to Nazareth following his presentation in the Temple by Mary and Joseph: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him” (Luke 2:52).

In the gospel, the angel Gabriel breaks the news to Zechariah about her wife bearing a child despite her barrenness and old age. Zechariah finds it unbelievable and he is afraid too, this may be because he doesn’t know how to break this news to his kinsfolk without being labeled as being out of his mind. But God spares Zechariah from this undue burden. He intervenes and does all the talking for him. Zechariah is rendered ‘speechless and unable to talk until the days these things take place,’ (v. 9).

In many ways, we can draw some parallels between our lives today and the lives of the mothers of Samson and John the Baptist. We experience a lot of barrenness on many levels in our lives. Many are considered as failures and cursed despite all their best efforts to make a living in society.  Many are losing faith and thinking that it is impossible to enjoy the prosperity that God has promised to all. Despite the progress our world has made there is a lot of fruitlessness and desolation in the lives of many of our people. Many who have worked hard have not reaped the true fruit of their labor.

We ask …

Why, despite all the hard and long work of ordinary labourers, they still do not have enough food to lay on the table, good education and health to provide to their children and  a bright future that they can leave to their children?

Why despite enormous wealth the world has produced, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer? The global economy is growing but many people do not receive any benefit from it, worst, it has intensified their poverty.

Why despite all the efforts and advances in the past at empowering people, promoting democracy and tolerance, we allow authoritarian leaders to violate human rights and destroy life especially of the poor and vulnerable in society?

Why despite the advanced information technology which was originally envisioned to connect us, we have heightened divisiveness in society and narcissism among individuals?

Why despite the advancement in science and knowledge about nature, we are on the verge of catastrophic environmental destruction because of climate change?

We also ask the church: Why despite more than 500 years of Christianity in our country, the church has not become a credible witness and the faith has not become a great resource for social transformation as there is so much apathy and indifference of many Catholics to the many social ills in our country?

Why has it come to this? Perhaps, we have become proud and self-sufficient. We have become selfish and protective of our own kind. We have become individualist and more concerned about our own security and comforts. We have believed the lie that the powers-that-be has imposed upon us in order to maintain the status quo.

Ironically, yet auspiciously, it is in these desolate realities where God is sowing God’s seed and grace of God’s mission and dream for all of us. It is in these impossible cases that God is slowly birthing God’s people and kingdom just as God made possible the birth of Samson and John the Baptist despite their barren and sterile mothers. For God, our desolation and barrenness are less as a curse than as a preparation for something special.

But we gotta believe, trust and hope. We gotta have faith in seeing God working and walking with us in the barren areas of our lives. We need to go beyond and cease focusing on own enclosed security, comfort and agenda. We need to accept God’s invitation to transform us in God’s grace so we can be born again to become forerunners of Jesus.

Like Samson and John the Baptist, each of us has been called to be a forerunner of Jesus, to prepare the way for the growing and fulfillment of the mission of God’s kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated. We are forerunners of Jesus by the witness of our lives and courageous proclamation so that the gospel of Jesus can continue to transform other people’s lives, especially those who have not yet had the experience of knowing him.

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow). The stage is set for the next, and most important annunciation, the annunciation of Mary.

We will hear about this tomorrow.

3rd Simbang Gabi: Joseph’s Yes


Welcome to the third Simbang Gabi, or as I have called it, a Christmas academy. In this academy,  we shall go back to the original Christmas story and discover the true meaning of Christmas so as to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus into our lives and our world.

The Christmas story has plenty of annunciation stories. Annunciation is the story of God choosing certain people, usually ordinary, uninfluential, poor even sinner and broken people. They were chosen since their birth to participate in Missio Dei, God’s mission. Annunciation is God’s story of breaking the good news to chosen people about Missio Dei, God’s plan and dream for humanity and the whole cosmos.

All of us have our own annunciation story. For each of us were chosen by God for a mission in this world. No one is born in this world without a purpose, a mission and a calling. Like the characters in the Christmas story, our deepest calling is to participate in the Missio Dei. Through the inspiration of the characters that we will encounter during these Simbang Gabi, may we discover our true calling that comes from God.

The most famous annunciation story of all time is that of Mary which we will read in the gospel of the 5th Simbang Gabi. In the gospel today, we will hear the annunciation story of Joseph.

Like Mary’s story, Joseph’s story is vital to the Christmas story.  Without Joseph’s cooperation, our Christmas story will be incomplete.

So what can we learn from Joseph’s annunciation story?

We don’t hear much about St. Joseph in the Bible. He is simply described as the “husband of Mary,” a “carpenter,” and a “just man” in the Gospel accounts. Neither his age nor his death is ever mentioned in scripture.

Joseph is the silent character in the bible, never said a word, but always did the right thing.  As they say, a man of few words.  Joseph was the perfect example of the saying: Action speaks louder than words.

Joseph was a true gentleman. A true gentleman never leaves his woman. I know of men who so love their woman.  But when their woman got pregnant, suddenly the big burden of responsibility dawned upon them, they become terribly scared and pathetically, abandon their woman.

Joseph became terribly scared and confused too when he learns that Mary to whom he is already betrothed but with whom he has not consummated their relationship in marriage, is already pregnant. Joseph was faced with a horrific dilemma.  There could be only one explanation; she had been unfaithful and was having another man’s child. It was a very serious matter and, if brought out into the open, would have made Mary liable to death by stoning. But he never abandoned Mary.

As a righteous man and devout follower of the Mosaic Law, he would want to break the union with someone who had seriously broken the Law. And yet, because he was such a good man, he did not want to expose Mary to a terrible punishment. Few men would accept such a situation with such calmness and self-restraint. Most would find it a terrible blow to their manhood.

It is at this point that God announced to Joseph the true situation of Mary.  God assured Joseph that no other man is involved, that she has conceived through the power of God’s Spirit. Joseph, without saying a word, accepted God’s explanation. More importantly, Joseph accepted God’s invitation to enter into the Missio Dei and become part of the dream and mission of God for humanity.

Joseph was a dreamer. Joseph had big dreams for himself and Mary.  But one day in a dream God announced to Joseph his plan. The annunciation story of Joseph happened through a dream. After his dream, Joseph did not hesitate to follow his own dream in the bigger dream of God. Joseph was not selfish to allow his own dreams to prevail over and above the dream of Mary and the dream of God for him. Joseph the dreamer, saw his own dream fulfilled in God’s dream and Mary’s dream.

What is your dream? How do you see your dream a part of God’s bigger dream for you and for the whole world?

Joseph was the faithful husband and father.  He obeyed the angel’s advice to go to Egypt when Herod decided to kill all newborn male babies in Israel.  And he raised the boy child Jesus through hard work and dedication.

Joseph’s story is that he was able to go beyond his own world. He understood the meaning of his life beyond himself.  He was able to transcend his own needs, his own desires, his own ambitions and connect them with the greater mission that God has in store for him.  And because of this he became great.  If Joseph left Mary and decided not to fulfil the invitation of the angel, he is forgotten forever.

We are called to be the new Joseph’s in our times today.  God is inviting us out of our own small world in order to engage and connect with others for a greater purpose other than our own ambitions, plans and desires.  Like Joseph may we see our lives in the greater interconnection of our lives with the life of God through the incarnation of Jesus.  Lock in our own world we can achieve little.  But connected with each other and with God we can do great things.

As we come closer to the birthday of Jesus, let us be like Joseph in welcoming the birth of Jesus in our lives, in our world!

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow).

1st Simbang Gabi: Christmas in Action

Welcome to the 1st Simbang Gabi, or as I have called these nine days novena masses leading to Christmas, a Christmas academy. In this academy,  we shall go back to the original Christmas story and discover the true meaning of Christmas so as to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus into our lives and our world.

Even though 2020 has not yet ended, many people are saying that because of the pandemic, 2020 is the gloomiest and toughest year of their lives so far. As we approach Christmas, the world is enveloped by the darkness of so much misery and despair. As the world continue to grapple with the pandemic, many are dejected to celebrate Christmas. How can I possibly celebrate a joyful Christmas when I lost my job, am hungry, homeless and abandoned? Indeed, for many people around the world, this will be the saddest and most difficult Christmas that they will ever celebrate in their lives.

On the other hand, the pandemic has ironically led many people to return to the true reason and meaning of Christmas. For many years, Christmas has become a hectic season of Christmas parties, eating, drinking, exchange gifts, Christmas carols, family reunions, etc. Christmas has become more and more materialistic and consumerist offering a fleeting moment to escape and forget all the sorrows and pains of life. The pandemic, however, has left a hole in the hearts for many of us with the intense desire deep within to truly long for the coming of the Son of God in our lives. Even though, many times, this is expressed in desperate pleas, even complaint:

“God, where are you? In this time of the pandemic, why does it seem that are you so far away from us? Why have you abandoned us?

I remember a story of Cardinal Chito Tagle, archbishop of Manila when he visited Tacloban just before Christmas in 2013. Tacloban was devastated by supertyphoon Yolanda in November, 2013. Cardinal Tagle went to Tacloban to sympathize with the thousands of typhoon victims, bringing relief goods and celebrating mass. Before the mass, he mingled with the people. Trying to come up with the right words to emphatize with the victims, Tagle told one lady, “It must be so hard for you to experience Christmas after this devastating typhoon.” To Tagle’s surprise, the lady replied, “No Cardinal, on the contrary, for the first time in my life, I truly experienced the spirit of Christmas. People are genuinely helping and caring for each other. Differences in politics and other kinds are suddenly forgotten and we have become one people. Aren’t these the meaning of Christmas?”

For a moment, the Cardinal stood there speechless. He was deeply touched by the lady’s profound words.

In today’s gospel John the Baptist, from his prison cell, sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he really is the one who was to come. Is he the one whom John identified as God’s special messenger? It seems that John was beginning to have doubts about Jesus. He may have wondered if he had been pointing people in the right direction. 

Jesus did not answer John’s question directly; he simply pointed to the life-giving ministry he has been doing. All that God was doing through Jesus gave John his answer.

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. 
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Like John the Baptist, our faith is greatly challenged today in this time of pandemic. The Lord invites us this Christmas that in our brokenness, in our poverty, in our weakness and need, we can always experience God’s presence as healing and life-giving and renewing. Jesus’ final words to the messengers of John the Baptist were, ‘happy is the one who does not lose faith in me’. The Lord challenges us to “Open your eyes and see.” We need to look again at the many ways the Lord is actually working in our own lives and the lives of others despite the hardships and miseries.

As we begin this Simbang Gabi, the church invites us, in the midst of the pandemic, to return to the true reason of Christmas. Christmas is about God embracing the true realities of our lives, especially the sinful conditions and messy situation we have made of our lives and the world. We cannot escape and forget the ugly realities of our lives even if we drown ourselves in celebration and partying.

The Simbang Gabi is an opportunity for us to celebrate an authentic Christmas. Through the Simbang Gabi may we truly accept and experience God in the midst of the realities of our lives.  Through the stories of the characters in the Simbang Gabi may we learn to discover our own story woven in the story of Jesus who became flesh and dwelt among us.

2nd Simbang Gabi: God Entered the Human Race

Welcome to the second Simbang Gabi, or as I have called it, a Christmas academy. In this academy,  we shall go back to the original Christmas story and discover the true meaning of Christmas so as to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus into our lives and our world.

I remember an incident when I joined the Redemptorist mission at Sawanga, Bacon, Sorsogon in 1981. It was the Christmas break during my second year at the seminary. The mission was spearheaded by Fr. Manny Thomas, CSsR. We were there to give missions as well as to celebrate the Simbang Gabi with the people. As soon as we arrived in the barrio and introduced ourselves, some people were asking me whether I have relatives in the barrio. I told them, not that I am aware of. They told me that there are a number of families in the barrio with my family name, Echano, so they surmised they are my relatives.

I have almost forgotten this experience until, years after, I attended a special gathering of my relatives from my father side, the Echano’s. During conversations, I heard that my great, great grandfather spend some time in Sorsogon and other places for work. The line of conversation went as far as to suggest that during this time, my great great grandfather may have had some liaison with some local women in the area. It may not be farfetch to think that these affairs may have borne fruit. Upon hearing this, I suddenly remembered my experience in the mission in Sorsogon.

I must confess, I felt amused to hear that I may have had a charmer great, great grandfather. It is, indeed, interesting what one can discover in going back to his/her own ancestry. One can find interesting and fascinating details about the lives and background of one’s ancestors.

Have you tried researching your own ancestry? I’m sure you will find colorful characters among your ancestors. Many of them, may be both sinner and saint, but tried to live life to the fullest given their strengths and weaknesses and the particular circumstances they found themselves in. Your ancestors’ character will also give you a greater understanding of who you truly are.

In today’s 2nd Simbang Gabi, in the opening of the gospel from Matthew, we hear of the ancestry or genealogy of Jesus.  It is introduced with the words:

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

This may be one of the dullest Gospel readings of the year. It consists of a long list of names, God knows, I could not even pronounce all of them correctly.  This can even be a good tongue twister exercise. Seriously, many of them doesn’t ring a bell to most Christians. But they are interesting characters, if we could only find the time to examine each of them.

Significantly, there are four women mentioned – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Mary.  What Matthew had done by including them in the list is a big, big ‘no’ for the Jews in the sense that most of them, if not all, were not just women but sinners and foreigners because they all bore sons out of questionable union or wedlock. For example, Tamar, who got married to the two sons of Judah and herself was impregnated by her father-in-law; Rahab was a Canaanite harlot; Ruth, a Moabite woman and therefore a foreigner; Bathsheba, the mother of King Solomon with whom King David committed adultery;

There are also a number of scoundrels in the list. Even David, one of the most outstanding servants of God, was an adulterer and a murderer (apart from those he killed in war).

Including sinners and weak human characters is exactly the point of the gospel: Jesus fully entered our human condition, with all its virtues and vices. When the Son of God became a human being, indeed, he became one of us. The Gospel makes no effort to “sanitise” his origins, or the members of his immediate family. There is no shortage of skeletons in Jesus’ cupboard.

The incarnation of Jesus–Jesus, Son of God, becoming one of us–implies that God intended to become part of our human history and lineage. God immersed into everything of our human experience, even the messiest, the muddiest and the sinfulness of our humanity. This is so comforting especially for many of us experiencing great vulnerability and weaknesses. This gives us a lot of hope and the courage to persist because despite our frailties, God will not judge us, instead, he will give us thousands of chances and will continue to believe in the goodness that lies underneath our faults and failures.

The incarnation, therefore, is a two-way process. God became man in order for God to embrace the whole of human experience. But the incarnation event is also about the humanuty;s embracing the values, standard and mindset of God. Christmas is not just the coming down of God to humanity but also humanity’s going up to God. As Saint Athanasius, the renowned fourth-century bishop of Alexandria and the greatest apologetic of the doctrine of God as the Trinity, in his classic work, Incarnation of the Word, said:

“For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. For while He Himself was in no way injured, being impossible and incorruptible and very Word and God, men who were suffering, and for whose sakes He endured all this, He maintained and preserved in His own impossibility.”

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow).

Simbang Gabi: Going Back to the Original Christmas Story

Photo courtesy of Queen Amor Monserrat

Tomorrow, December 16, the Philippine church begins the well-loved and enduring Filipino Christmas tradition called Simbang Gabi (Filipino for “night masses”). Simbáng Gabi is a devotional nine-day series of Masses practiced by Roman Catholics and  Aglipayans in the Philippines in preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. The Simbáng Gabi Masses in the Philippines are held daily in all parishes, shrines and major chapels throughout the country from December 16–24 and occur at different times ranging from as early as 3 to 5 AM. Yes, that early!

In recent years, especially in urban areas where people find it difficult to attend the early morning masses because of their work, parishes celebrate evening masses of the Simbáng Gabi. This begins at the 15th of December and ends on the 23rd, (erroneously described as “anticipated Simbang gabi” since Vigil or anticipated Masses are only applicable for Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation). However, the propers and readings used for these Masses are those which are prescribed for the day.

White is the liturgical color for Masses celebrated within the context of these novena masses. Violet is used for any other Masses said during the day, as these are still considered part of the Advent season. Filipinos celebrate this Mass with great solemnity and the Gloria is sung.

The Simbang Gabi is the most important Filipino Christmas tradition. Simbang gabi is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the Filipinos.

The Simbang Gabi originated in the early days of Spanish rule over the Philippines as a practical compromise for farmers, who began work before sunrise to avoid the noonday heat out in the fields. It began in 1669. Priests began to say Mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas more common in the rest of the Hispanic world. [1]

After hearing Mass, Filipino families usually partake of the traditional Philippine Christmas delicacies,  either during breakfast at home or immediately outside the church, where they are sold. Vendors offer a wealth of native delicacies, including bibingka (rice flour and egg based cake, cooked using coals on top and under), puto bumbong (a purple sticky rice delicacy which is steamed in bamboo tubes, with brown sugar and coconut shavings as condiments), salabat (hot ginger tea) and tsokolate (thick Spanish cocoa).

Many Filipinos believe that if a devotee completed all nine days of the Simbáng Gabi, a request made as part of the novena may be granted. The danger of this, is again, it may lead us to focus on ourselves, which the celebration of Christmas in the secular world has all too often led us–with all the focus on material gifts, parties, and merry-making. The real focus of Simbang Gabi is supposedly, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ into our world. Thus, Simbang Gabi is, first and foremost, focused on how our lives can become gifts to Jesus Christ and for others, especially the poor and the needy. That is why in more recent years, the church has called Simbang Gabi more appropriately as Misa Aguinaldo (gift mass).

Indeed attending the Simbang Gabi is a sacrifice. We go out of our daily routine by waking up early in the morning especially in this cold season trying to complete the 9 days masses. It is a sacrifice made not just because of an obligation, nor because we have a petition nor because of a panata (promise) in exchange of a favour from God. It is a sacrifice made out of love, first and foremost, a gift to our Lord Jesus Christ who will be celebrating his birthday.

Simbang Gabi also marks the second part of Advent which focuses on the preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. Up to the 16th December, the season of Advent is a period of preparation for the Second Coming of our Lord.  On December 17th, Advent changes gear, the focus is on preparing us to celebrate Christmas.

Thus, in these last eight days before Christmas, the relationship between the readings changes.  Each of these days, the first reading is taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and chosen to match the gospel.  The gospels are taken from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The gospel brings us closer to the celebration of Christmas.  The sense of anticipation and fulfillment builds as we read the story of the preparation for Jesus’ first coming into this world for us.

In this light, Simbang Gabi is going back to the Christmas story, the original Christmas story.  By going back to the Christmas story, we will be introduced to characters that we might be hearing only at this time of the year like Manoah, Samson, Hannah, Samuel, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Many of these characters are poor, weak, desperate even broken. In their despair and weakness, we will see how their lives and stories find meaning in the coming of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  The stories of these characters are not separate stories, each story is part of a larger story—the Jesus story; the story of the coming down of God and becoming one of us.  All these stories are slowly unfolding towards a climax—the birth of Jesus. Each character will see the totality of their lives in God’s greater plan of God coming down to become one among us.  They are just supporting characters to the main character which is Jesus.

That is why I call Simbang Gabi a school or an academy that will teach us the real meaning and message of Christmas.  In the next nine days, join me as we reflect on the daily lessons and insight that each Simbang Gabi teaches and helps us to become gift to our Lord Jesus Christ and to one another. In this way, we can truly make Simbang Gabi, a most meaningful way of discovering and experiencing the meaning of Christmas.

[1] Roces, Alfredo (1 October 2009). Culture Shock! Philippines: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Marshall Cavendish Reference.