By Fr. Rolando V. Dela Rosa, O.P.
Many Filipinos today have lost sight of the fact that the novena of Masses, called Simbang Gabi, is held to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. This tradition is probably the Filipino version of the feast in honor of Nuestra Señora de la O which has been observed in Spain as early as 656 A.D when the Council of Toledo decreed that a solemn feast must be celebrated for eight days starting on December 18, to honor the pregnant Virgin Mary and as a preparation for Christmas.
During this eight-day feast, a daily Mass is celebrated just before dawn. All who are with child, whether rich or poor, shall attend this solemn event so they may honor Nuestra Señora de la O and seek her blessing for themselves and the children they will soon bear.
The letter “O” in Mary’s title refers to the beginning of the introductory verses or antiphons that precede the recitation or singing ofher Magnificat during the eight days before Christmas. An example of this is the December 19 antiphon that goes: “O flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all people; kings stand silent in your presence . . . Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.” The “O” antiphons express mankind’s passionate longing for the birth of Jesus.
In the past, the Simbang Gabi was never celebrated in the evening. So, some historians say that the name Simbang Gabi is a mistranslation of the traditional dawn Mass which the Spanish missionaries called Misa de Aguinaldo or Misa de Gallo.
I would like to believe, though, that the name Simbang Gabi appropriately describes what we Filipinos do during this nine-day novena Masses. For, the Mass is held before dawn when the night is darkest. For us, Filipinos, Simbang Gabi is an expression of our stubborn faith in God even in the bleakest moments of our life.
Celebrating the Simbang Gabi before sunrise, while darkness still envelops the world, allows us to see reality without the lurid and dazzling seductions of contemporary life. With our eyes focused on a God who chose to be born as a human being in a squalid cave with only a star to light the manger, we get in touch once more with the rock bottom meaning of Christian faith as exemplified by the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Minus the commercial trinkets and the flashy whatnots of the entertainment and media networks, the Simbang Gabi encourages us to move beyond the disasters visited on us by an unpredictable nature and the too predictable tragedies wrought by our wrong decisions.
After each Simbang Gabi, we leave the church knowing with unwavering certainty that however pitch-black the night is, this has no power to snuff out the faintest glimmer of the first light of day. The persistence of the Simbang Gabi tradition is our collective testimony to the fact that, because of our abiding faith in God, we may be often down, but we’re never really out. Hope springs eternal in the heart of every Filipino.