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.