Being in the Philippines over advent has been an incredible opportunity for me to take part in the Simbang Gabi tradition that is celebrated by Catholic Filipinos all over the islands. Indeed it is practiced all over the world as well. My Filipino friends in Tacoma all have Simbang Gabi celebrations at some of the most heavily Filipino parishes throughout the city. Starting on the 16th of December they have a Mass every day, sometimes with processions and lanterns, which continue until the 23rd. The final Mass is the Christmas Vigil for a total of nine Masses forming a Novena leading up to Christmas.
One thing I did not know about Simbang Gabi, (which means “Night Mass,” also known by the Spanish “Misa de Gallo” or “Mass of the Rooster” is that it is celebrated at 4:30 in the morning, at least in the churches I attended. In Tacoma the celebrations are in the evening. I guess it is hard to get Americans to do anything at 4:30 in the morning.
The first Simbang Gabi Mass I attended was on the 16th, and I was amazed. I arrived at justabout 4:10 AM, but even then the church was already full. The Filipino Churches I have seen are all alike in that they are not built with solid walls like churches in the west. Instead they are built with pillars supporting the ceiling and forming the walls, and between the pillars are built wrought iron grates. Some of these grates are solid panels, others are doors. In fact, the Carmelite Monastery in Davao has no walls at all, only a series of wrought iron doors, all wide open, and tied at full open position with wires.
At 4:10 AM, not only was the church full, but plastic chairs had been set up in crowds around three sides, and all of the chairs were full. People were sitting on the curbs, steps, and stonework surrounding the flower beds. This was not just true on the first day, but on every day of Simbang Gabi, including the Christmas Vigil.
When I told my little brother about that on Facebook chat he responded, “If only we had just a fraction of that faith here! Try getting Americans out of bed to do anything at 4:30 in the morning, let alone go to Mass.”
Now, I am not naïve enough to think that every one of those Filipino Catholics was automatically a saint just because they go to Mass at 4:30 in the morning for 8 days every December. There is a strong element of cultural Catholicism present in the Philippines, as there is in any country historically Catholic, meaning that a large part of the popular practice can no doubt be accounted for simply because that is just what everyone does. There does not need to be any real conversion of heart for people to follow a custom that all of their friends and family follow.
That being said, they show up. They show up really early in the morning. The custom, while not guaranteeing conversion any more than any other custom will, provides at least that much opportunity. Even though our actions should follow from conviction, it is also true that, being human, our convictions often follow from our actions. We do not have strong faith because we do not act upon our weak faith.
Simbang Gabi was a chance for me to act, and having acted upon a faith barely equal to the task of dragging me out of bed at 4:00 AM, my faith has become stronger, my desire for the Eucharist has become deeper, my relationship with the God who kicked me out of bed has grown deeper. It is only by responding to grace that we grow in our ability to be open to it.