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A star lantern, or “parol” in Tagalog, hangs above the altar as Archbishop J. Peter Sartain celebrates Mass at St. James Cathedral in Seattle Dec. 11, 2010. The Mass included a special blessing of parols for the start of Simbang Gabi, a nov

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The origin and meaning of the Simbang Gabi novena
December 14th, 2011
By Father Marvin-Paul R. Felipe, SDB

Simbang Gabi traces its roots to Mexico when, in 1587, the pope granted the petition of Fray Diego de Soria, prior of the convent of San Agustin Acolman, to hold Christmas Mass outdoors because the church could not accommodate the huge number of people attending the evening Mass.

Traditionally, Christmas Day in the Philippines is ushered in by the nine-day dawn Masses that start on Dec. 16. Originally, it popularly came to be known as Misa Aguinaldo or also known as the Misa de Gallo (Rooster’s Mass) in the traditional Spanish, and these Masses are also more popularly known in Tagalog as Simbang Gabi, or “Dawn Mass.”

Why Misa Aguinaldo? De Aguinaldo means gift, which is peculiar to Christmas. That is why the faithful wake up early for nine days before Christmas to join in the celebration of the dawn Mass. The faithful make this their “Aguinaldo” to God for the great gift of Jesus. The practice can also be understood as the preparation of the faithful to receive from God the great gift or “Aguinaldo” of Christmas, which is Jesus, the savior of the world.

Why Misa de Gallo? Usually the rooster crows at the break of dawn. During the old times, farmers as well as fishermen used the roosters as their alarm clock. So upon the first crow of the rooster they wake up early to drop by the church before going to their work and ask for the grace of good harvest. Originally the Mass was celebrated for them.

These nine dawn Masses are also considered as a novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Catholic faithful. This refers to the Roman Catholic practice of performing nine days of private or public devotion to obtain special graces. In traditional Catholic belief, completing the novena is also supposed to mean that God might grant the devotee’s special wish or favor.

Simbang Gabi has become one of the most popular traditions in the country. It is a significant moment not only because it strengthens relationships among family members and parishioners but also because it is the time where our faith is intensified. This is the time where we mostly feel the presence of the Lord because it is the spiritual preparation for Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. It does not matter if one has the stamina to complete the novena or not, what really matters is what is inside the heart. The blessing does not depend on the number of Masses attended, but what is important is the disposition of the person who receives the Lord’s blessing.

Over the generations, local Filipino faith communities have creatively adapted Simbang Gabi. While only candles and lanterns are used in rural areas, as in centuries past, most churches today have electric lights, lanterns and sound systems in keeping with the economic means of the congregation. The custom is also kept among Filipinos living elsewhere in the world. Some adaptations are deeper. For example, many parishes now in the United States celebrate Simbang Gabi around 7 o’clock in the evening, not just in the morning, in order to accommodate the needs of people on a great variety of work schedules. No matter how or when this celebration takes place, the annual Simbang Gabi provides a strong indication of the depth of Catholicism in the hearts of Filipinos.

Filipino Catholics who sincerely live their belief in the Incarnation merit the respect and admiration of the whole nation. It is a celebration of our gifts.

I wish to encourage all of us – not only Filipinos but also Catholics in general – to practice Simbang Gabi, because it is a great source of spiritual nourishment to all of us as we prepare for the celebration of the birth of our Jesus Christ. This is open to all. Invite your families and friends.

The writer is associate pastor of St. Anne of the Sunset Parish in San Francisco.


From December 16, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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