Simbang Gabi and cultural amnesia

I’ve found a fascinating irony.

As an American son of Philippine immigrants, I’ve heard the ubiquitous lament of my parents’ generation that their children (my generation) have lost old culture. Fortunately, my parents can complain to a far lesser degree; although I was born in the United States, we moved back to the Philippines when I was less than 6 months old. I learned to walk, talk, read, write, feed myself, and go to the bathroom on that side of the ocean. Even after re-establishing a permanent presence in America, my parents quite diligently ensured that our link to the old culture was not lost. This was not the case with many other families. Many of my peers, born in America as I was but who never really lived in the Philippines, were never taught to speak the old language, never learned Philippine history, and, perhaps most tragically, never really learned the Catholic faith. Favoring instead a fuller assimilation into the secular American Zeitgeist, they prized the label of “Filipino-American” yet would find themselves as out of place in everyday Filipino life as their parents once found themselves in America; this lack of common cultural understanding, so often a source of cross-generational friction in immigrant families, is rightly a cause for lament.

December is a time which illuminates this generational and cultural gap between Philippine immigrants and their children. There is a much-beloved Filipino tradition called Simbang Gabi (roughly, “night church”): for the nine days preceding Christmas, an early morning Mass is offered (while the sky is still dark), followed by a hearty, festive breakfast. In American dioceses with large Filipino communities, this novena of Masses has made its way into many parishes. The children, who are usually on Christmas break, generally attend for two different reasons: either they are dragged by their parents who don’t want to leave them at home, or they come for the food. In any case, it certainly doesn’t inspire the same nostalgia as it does for the older generation. During Mass, the generational differences are even more pronounced. Those who grew up in the Philippines easily and happily follow along with the Filipino folk hymns and Ordinary of the Mass (in Filipino and English); children, on the other hand, are either asleep or struggling to stay awake. In any case, one can sympathize with the parents as they find it difficult to pass onto their children a tradition they likely once shared with their own parents.

But here is the great irony: the children are not the only ones who have lost their heritage.

Et ad mentem: a Simbang Gabi Mass, as far as the actual Mass propers are concerned, is no different from any other Mass celebrated later that day (differences in language notwithstanding). There is nothing unique or special in their own right about these Masses other than they are celebrated earlier in the day. In fact, the reason for celebrating the Mass so early in the day been obscured. If you ask any run-of-the-mill immigrant attendee, he or she will likely not know the answer as to the origin of this tradition or why it exists; or, if an answer is offered, it is usually based on some folksy anecdote of spurious origin. Like for so many of the children, perhaps the most memorable part of the whole thing for the older people is the food and fellowship after after the Mass, not so much the Mass itself.

Those who know the tradition of the Roman Rite, however, know that originally, Simbang Gabi is nothing other than the old Rorate Mass, which is still widely celebrated in many communities that use the Traditional Roman Rite. The Rorate Mass, like Simbang Gabi, can be celebrated throughout Advent but is normally offered before sunrise on each of the nine days prior to Christmas. However, these Masses are not Advent Masses; they do not use the propers of that particular day. Rather, the Rorate Mass is a votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary traditionally celebrated by candlelight only. The liturgical color is white, not violet. The Mass takes its name from the introit: Rorate, caeli desuper et nubes pluant Iustum; aperiatur terra, et germinet Salvatorem (“Drop down dew, ye heavens, and let the clouds rain down the Just One; let the earth be opened and spring forth the Savior”). The Collect, Gospel, and Postcommunion are that of the Annunciation. The Eucharistic Preface is that of the Blessed Virgin Mary (…et Te in celebratione, etc.). Most tellingly, the Rorate Mass even enjoys the privilege of the Gloria, which is otherwise silenced beneath Advent’s austerity.

Advent, while a penitential season, is not so much focused on mortification as its Lenten counterpart; rather, the emphasis is on preparation and hopeful expectation for the arrival of the Lord. And as Christmas day approaches, our expectation grows. In this sense, Advent is an eminently Marian season. As Mary kept in her heart the wonderful deeds that God would accomplish through her, so too does the Church contemplate in advance the fruits of the Incarnation. The Church anticipates the splendor of Christmas in a veiled way; in the darkness of the early morning hours, lit only by flickering candlelight– almost in the manner of a vigil– the penitential violet vestments are put away in favor of festal white. Like the vigilant Virgin, we stay awake, joyfully expecting the arrival of the Christ. The Rorate Mass takes this Marian character of Advent and amplifies it, as it were, as Christ draws nearer.

This profound and sublime Marian dimension is lost in today’s Simbang Gabi, although there is no restriction even in the Novus Ordo for votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin in Advent. Instead of the sober contemplation of the Incarnation which Filipinos celebrated for centuries on the mornings before Christmas, Simbang Gabi becomes a normal Advent liturgy stripped of any unique Marian character, relegated to little more than an opportunity to sing Filipino folk songs which have nearly nothing to do with the Mass propers.

As stated before in these pages (here and here), the Roman Rite is itself a cultural form sui generis, handed down organically from the earliest centuries. For over 400 years, Filipinos have actively participated in this heritage of the Roman Rite through devotions like the Rorate Mass. But like parents who neglected to pass their culture to their children, Filipinos today are guilty of perpetuating a similar cultural and religious amnesia among the younger generation. Or rather, like their children, they have shunned the venerable, time-honored practices of their ancestors and opted for the fleeting, the trendy, and the banal. This is the great irony: those who lament their children’s loss of culture are guilty of a more lamentable theft.

The root problem, however, resides not merely among Filipino Catholics, but among most Catholics in general. What is expressed in a particular way through modern celebrations of Simbang Gabi is in fact emblematic of the grave crisis of identity which grips the entire Church. In this larger context, Filipinos are by no means the worst perpetrators of this sharp break with the past; coming to Mass to sing Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit instead of Rorate caeli desuper, while remaining an objective deviation from the innermost essence of the Roman liturgy, is nonetheless preferable to the practice of the vast majority of modern Catholics– which is to have no special Advent practices at all. Even for those who dutifully attend Sunday Mass, traditions like Rorate and Simbang Gabi are either burdensome relics of the past or, even worse, simply forgotten. They are no longer handed down; the introduction of novel practices with little manifest continuity with the past, constitute the very essence of a rupture from tradition. Liturgy devolves from anamnesis to amnesia, and the Church of Today is less and less one with the Church of all ages.

If immigrants rightly lament their children’s loss of culture, then they should strive to implant the seeds of that culture from the earliest age and continuously nurture it. This is how families retain a strong cross-generational bond based on a shared culture that is lived every day. The Church, too, must continuously cultivate the illustrious heritage she has received organically through the Roman liturgy, for this is what binds the Church across all centuries into a united community bonded by the common worship of Jesus Christ.

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