Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The "Doorbuster" Mass

With a week to go 'til Christmas, the Simbang Gabi is back in full swing, literally across the globe.

Often held outdoors in its native Philippines due to the throngs of attendees, the traditional novena of pre-dawn Masses in the days leading up to Christmas has become an increasingly prominent feature of parish life in the States, with cathedral kickoffs held yet again this year in LA and Seattle, among others, and Arlington's mother-church hosting the tradition's final day for the first time.

Opening the rite in Manila's Cathedral at dawn on Sunday, Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales summed up the "challenge" of the novena as preparing for Christmas by becoming "truly ready for Jesus Christ," being renewed in his values and in the ability to recognize the Lord's presence "in the face of the poor."

While the liturgies invariably begin anywhere from 3-5.30am in the Philippines (where many churches take on eye-popping light displays for the festivities), many US sites have transferred the Novena Masses to the evenings to accommodate work schedules and facilitate the broadest participation possible; in true catholic fashion, the diaspora's observances -- often accompanied by a potluck meal after Mass -- have gone multicultural, with all comers warmly welcomed.

In the nation's largest local church -- where the majority of its 288 parishes are hosting one form or another of the celebration -- this year's main thread for the novena is being taken from St Matthew's Gospel:

"I was a stranger and you welcomed me!" ("Ako'y isang dayuhan na inyong kinupkop") is the theme for the 2007 celebrations, said Good Shepherd Sister Christina Sevilla, director of Filipino Ministry in the [Los Angeles] archdiocese.

"Every year," she explained, "we come up with a theme that we can keep in our prayers during the nine days novena --- a theme that is relevant and a current issue our society is facing. This year, with the immigration issue still very much debated, we have chosen a Scripture text from the Gospel of St. Matthew [25: 35], with the hope that we see in each person --- regardless of status, sex, race, color, religion --- Jesus Himself who entered our human world as a Divine Stranger."

Brought to the Philippines by the Spaniards, the tradition -- known in Spanish as "Misa del Gallo" (the "Rooster's Mass") given its early hour -- is still kept among some Latino communities. But in its Filipino iteration, one of its standards is the parol -- a lantern shaped to represent the Star of Bethlehem.

At the Seattle kickoff celebration earlier this month, Archbishop Alex Brunett blessed the lanterns that would be displayed during parish celebrations there.

Indeed, the church is alive.

PHOTOS 2-3: St James Cathedral