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Rejoice—Christmas is present in the waiting
HONG KONG (SE): The Christmas celebration begins well before the December 24 Vigil Mass and the parish of St. Benedict in Shatin put the first touches on its celebration on December 13 with the lighting of the Christmas tree.
At 5.00pm, Reverend Pio Ng Wan-hang led the Youth Band in a recital of Christmas carols during an hour-long ceremony featuring the Christmas story depicted in an amusing drama in the entrance foyer of the church.
Even before the lights on the Christmas tree began to twinkle, a choir from the English-speaking community, together with the parish children’s choir, welcomed people at the entrance of the church with Christmas songs, announcing the arrival of the saviour that Christmas celebrates.
Waiting is an integral part of experiencing and celebrating Christmas and nowhere in the liturgy is this expressed as clearly as in the Philippine custom of the Simbang Gabi (Night Mass) or, more accurately, the Missa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster), a novena of pre-dawn Masses prior to Christmas Day.
While Advent is a time of waiting and preparing to greet the birth of our saviour, the Simbang Gabi is a full blown liturgical celebration, replete with white vestments, Gloria and Creed, proclaiming that the Christ has already come.
Traditionally celebrated as the rooster is calling the light of the sun to dispel the dark of night, the Mass was held by the light of the lanterns that the people carried to navigate the often dangerous paths across hills and through farmland to the church.
However, in modern city life the Simbang Gabi is often marked in the evening and the first Mass of the novena was celebrated on December 15 at the Diocesan Pastoral Centre for Filipinos at a time when the rooster bids the sun to rest beneath the skyline.
While the physical atmosphere in the downtown Hong Kong centre may be a long way from the chill of the early morn among the rice paddies and fields of a rural village, and the glare of fluorescent lighting far from the flickering glow of candles, the faith in the saviour and the joy at his coming remain the same.
Father Ronnie Gicalao likened the celebration of Christmas to bringing order into a world of chaos, saying that in our preparation, the first question we should ask is, “What should we do?”
He pointed out that when people asked John the Baptist the same question, he was quite clear in his reply—act justly and share with others.
He related how a woman once asked him what she should do, as her sister had joined an Evangelical Church. “Do nothing,” he said he replied. “Show yourself as a good Christian by being yourself and through what you do. Don’t argue, don’t use words.”
Father Gicalao said that this is the message of the Simbang Gabi, as can be found in the words of Jesus, “For my salvation is about to come, my justice is already here.”
He explained that fire is a common image as a source of light in the bible and is also the image of the Simbang Gabi, which traditionally was celebrated by candlelight.
“We are attracted to the light,” he said. “We gravitate towards the light in our lives, not the darkness. The light of Jesus is what we look for at Christmas. Our lives are chaos if we do not look towards the light.”
Well, what should we do as we celebrate Christmas? Father Gicalao says to remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God, which means that God is already in our hearts.
“Witness to the kingdom of God,” he said, “and show that faith by walking as children of the light.”
In the words of a beautiful song sung by Janet Mariano, our prayer for Advent can be, “Purify my heart O Lord.”
The Simbang Gabi was celebrated every evening at the centre up to December 23, as well as for the first time at the parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Taipo.
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