Despite the coronavirus pandemic, predominantly Christian Philippines, a nation of 110 million multi-ethnic people, has begun the celebrated nine-day Midnight Masses in Aglipayan and Catholic churches from Batanes down to the Christian towns in Mindanao.
With the basic health protocols up on every mind of the faithful, required by health authorities and the government's Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases, Christians gathered in trickles at different times convenient to the parishes' schedule – shortly before midnight Wednesday.
This is the so-called Simbang Gabi or the Midnight Mass, a devotional nine-day series of Masses attended by Christians in anticipation of Christmas, similar to the nine dawn Masses leading to Christmas Eve practiced in Puerto Rico called Misa de Aguinaldo.
This is the time Christians go to their parishes or stay at home, given the restrictions, to celebrate the birth of Jesus, that moment, in the words of Roman Catholic Archbishop Diarmuid Martin “when the God who had existed before all ages took on human flesh for our salvation.”
Simbang Gabi in the Philippines, which received the Catholic Cross in the 16th century, is held daily from December 16 to 24, and occurs at different times ranging from as early as 3:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. On the last day of the Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve, the service is instead called Misa de Gallo, the Spanish for Rooster's Mass, which has an important role in Philippine culture.
Theologians say God took on human flesh and taught the believers what it meant to be human: the Christmas story getting past “a fascinating fairy tale: a wonderful story of simplicity set in the bleak and austere beauty of a cold winter's night” nearly 8,800 kms away from this Land of the Morning.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle had previ-ously reminded the Catholic faithful of the true essence of the Midnight Masses, saying these “are expressions of filial devotion that prepare the faithful as they receive Christ in their lives.”
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines itself underlined to the young Filipinos that they must “put God in their friendship” because the Midnight Masses were for worship and not for courtship.
The Director of the Pasig Diocesan Youth Ministry, Fr. Joeffrey Brian Catuiran, pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish, himself encouraged the youth to take advantage of the occasion to get more involved in the life of the Church.
Aglipayan and Catholic priests – from Gonzaga and Sanchez Mira in Cagayan to Paoay, Currimao and Pinili in Ilocos Norte down to Muñoz City in Nueva Ecija, Binalonan in Pangasinan to Moncada and Gerona in Tarlac as well as Camalig in Albay and Minglanilla in Cebu – and the other Christian towns in the country – will intone yet once more the significance and message of the Midnight Masses which culminate on the eve of Christmas.
There will be those who talk of the simplicity the shepherds displayed, the first to go to Jesus in the manger and encounter, according to Christians, the world's Redeemer, without even saying “transeamus usque Bethlehem.”
At the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Fr. Jaime Padilla wished everyone should be able to welcome into their lives the mercy of God that Jesus had given to the faithful.
Priests, Aglipayans and Catholics, are one in saying while the Christmas story is captivatingly engrossing, there is something, the inroads of technology despite, that makes believers stop and think and realize that life is deeper than Yuletide's commercialized portrayal.
And the cold winds from the Mongolian steppes, which have started to be felt in this tropical country in mid-September, have been an apt reminder that before much too long the Church bells would start chiming the Midnight Masses.
In some streets of historic San Juan City, particularly Gilmore, Ortigas Avenue, Pinaglabanan and F. Blumentritt, including the square fronting the Agora Public Market, the colors have become a reminder that Yuletide indeed is here.
Christmas songs as well have taken the night atmosphere –- like the song Joy to the World, whose lyrics were written in 1719 by English hymn writer and theologian Isaac Watts (1674-1748).
“Joy to the World, the Lord is come!/ Let earth receive her King;/ Let every heart prepare Him room,/ And Heaven and nature sing,/ And Heaven and nature sing,/ And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.”//
Elsewhere in the city, the Tagalog Christmas song “Pasko Na Naman” is being sung by young boys and girls in front of lantern-decorated houses.
”Pasko na naman, o kay tulin ng araw./ Paskong nagdaan, tila ba kung kailan lang./ Ngayon ay Pasko, dapat pasalamatan./ Ngayon ay Pasko, tayo ay mag-awitan.”//(It’s Christmas once again, the days roll by fast./ The past Christmas, ‘twas like it had just passed by./ Now that it’s Christmas, only proper we give thanks./ Now that it’s Christmas, let’s sing carols.//)
As in many other Christian towns of this Southeast Asian republic, discovered for Europe by Ferdinand Magellan on March 16, 1521, San Juan City in Metro Manila and Cainta in the eastern skirts of the metropolis have their share of lanterns and carols in the run up to the celebration of Midnight Masses.
Exotic foods at home after the Midnight Mass or the Misa de Gallo, following nine successive night masses in Church, are certain to enrich plates of Filipino homes.
Many say Yuletide in this country – one of only two predominantly Christian countries in Asia, the other being East Timor – is a mixture of Western and native Filipino traditions.
Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, sending Christmas cards, and singing carols have all been inherited from the cultures of the West although these have been adapted to fit the nature and character of the Christian Filipino.
Perhaps not as many attend the first to the eighth night –- or dawn — Masses, but the ninth which falls on Christmas Eve, one of the traditions most Filipino families celebrate, is on the main a night without sleep and a continuing celebration sliding right into Christmas Day, when, ironically, dishing out of Christmas carols become already anti-climactic.
Some say as Dec. 24 dawns, the last Mass of Simbang Gabi – called Miatinis in many Ilocano towns and Misa de Gallo among Cebuanos and Boholanos in Central Philippines and in Mindanao – is attended by the elderly, those in mid-life and even the young ones.
Despite the pandemic and the requirements for health protocols which include social distancing and the wearing of face masks, many say the meaning of Christmas to this predominantly Christian nation will continue to be in the heartbeats of the faithful.