Christmas Midnight Mass: The Wonder of Christmas

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Tonight’s liturgy and readings of the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas Mass during midnight, is full of contrasting words and images.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims,

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9: 1).

These prophetic words from Isaiah truly express the paradoxical challenge of living the spirit of Christmas: Christmas is to see and to walk towards the light amidst the darkness of our lives and our world

The second reading, St. Paul in his letter to Titus, speaks of the two comings of Christ: (1) “the grace of God has appeared,” that is, in the Christ event (and Bethlehem marks the inception of its appearance); (2) “while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory…”

In the Nativity, Christ comes first in great humility in anticipation of his coming again in majesty and great glory. It is especially fitting that this note should be struck at the Midnight Mass of Christmas, for much of the traditional imagery speaks of the Lord’s Second Coming as taking place at midnight. This imagery, for example, is found in the parable of the ten virgins: “At midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom!’” (Mt 25:6).

Lest we sentimentalize Christmas into a “Baby Jesus” cult, we need to remember that it is only in the light of the Second Coming that we can celebrate the first coming.  We are kind of living in-between times. Jesus has already come more than 2,000 years ago but we still await the fullness of his coming when we partake of his glory at the end of time.

Of all the readings, the gospel has the most contrasting images. Christmas is the birth of the king. But 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.

There is darkness in the night, and yet the radiance of  God’s love is in the child. The winter is cold, but the baby brings the fire of God’s love to earth. The baby is so small and helpless; and yet he is the Word, who in the beginning was God and was with God. The humble animals surround the child, but the angels of God sing his birth. The child is poor and lowly in origin, and yet all the power of God is his. The stable is lowly, but it is the king of kings who is born into it.

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It is in these contrasts that we can find the wonder of Christmas. Indeed, Christmas is not the eradication of contrast. Christmas is not the absence of conflict. It is not the deleting of differences. On the contrary, it is the acceptance of diversity. It is the welcoming of the other who is unique and different from me. Contrast, is at the core of God’s incarnation: God became fully human without God stripping of God’s divinity and human becoming divine without human stripping of humanity.

The wonder of Christmas is the story of God coming down from heaven and embracing the world and humanity despite all its darkness, messiness, sinfulness, and muddiness.  The wonder of Christmas is God’s becoming human by not resorting to human power, prestige, wealth and fame.

The wonder of Christmas, however, is not just God coming down to become human. The wonder of Christmas is also human going up to God by welcoming God’s word and plan in human life. The greatest joy of Christmas for humanity is this very sublime dignity that God has imparted to all of us through Jesus Christ–the opportunity to partake of God’s divine life and all its qualities–peace, justice, wisdom, joy, unity, generosity and prosperity.

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 that the incarnation of Christ occurred not just in order for God to become human but also for human to become God, Similarly, the Benedictine monk Julian of Vezelay (c. 1080 – 1165) highlights the double movement of the Christmas wonder–God’s becoming human and human becoming divine:

And so from his royal throne the Word of God came to us, humbling himself in order to raise us up, becoming poor to make us rich, and human to make us divine.

It is in this light that Mary’s yes is very important to the Christmas story. Mary’s fiat (yes) is a turning point in the history of the world. The turning point involved the incarnation as God’s coming down from heaven to become human and Mary’s yes which represents humanity’s aspiration of going up to God. Mary’s yes is the prototype of humanity’s yes, or more precisely, Mary’s yes represents humanity’s yes par excellence.

Mary’s yes is replicated by the shepherds who came to worship the baby in the manger and the different characters in the Christmas story that we have heard during the 9 days of Simbang Gabi or Christian academy. They are all part of the wonder of Christmas.

The wonder of Christmas will not be complete with just the birth of Jesus. The response and participation of Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and many other prophets and characters who allowed God to make them an instrument of God’s plan and dream for all humanity and creation, are all part of the Christmas wonder. The wonder of Christmas cannot be complete with merely God’s action; it includes and necessarily involves human response and participation.

We can never, therefore, experience the wonder of Christmas if we become passive observer of the great event of incarnation. You are part of the wonder of Christmas. God wants you to be part of the wonder of Christmas. We can be part of the wonder of Christmas not through the baby-cult, admiring the cute baby Jesus on the manger from the outside but not receiving Christ from the inside of our being. The wonder of Christmas is the reception of the Christmas story into our lives and like Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and many other prophets and characters, it is allowing ourselves to become instruments and heralds of the building of God’s kingdom, here and now.

This Christmas, let us once again welcome in wonder and awe the greatest event of God’s coming into our lives. Together with the whole world let us bow down and adore our savior Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us humbly receive the birth of Jesus in our hearts and resoundingly accept our becoming part of the Christmas wonder.

A most blessed Christmas to all!

 

Here is the schedule of Christmas Day masses at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Christmas Day masses at the shrine are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Christmas Day masses at the shrine.

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Simbang Gabi: Our Gift to Our Lord Jesus Christ

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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. We will see that the lives and stories of these characters will come together in Jesus Christ.  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. 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.

That is why I call Simbang Gabi a school or an academy that will teach us the real meaning and message of Christmas.  The daily lesson and insight of each Simbang Gabi will teach and help us how to become gift to our Lord Jesus Christ and to one another. In this way, Simbang Gabi is truly a most meaningful way of discovering and experiencing the meaning of Christmas.

The profound meaning and calling of Simbang Gabi is reflected in this year’s theme of the Simbang Gabi at the shrine: Sambayanang Namumuhay sa Pag-asa: Minamahal, May Lakas, May Handog ( A People Living in Hope: Beloved, Strong, Gifted).

Here is the schedule of Simbang Gabi at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Simbang Gabi masses at the shrine, both evening and early morning, are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Simbang Gabi at the shrine.

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