For most Catholics, Christmas season has ended, but there are many who keep the traditional Christmastide season alive until the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary on February 2nd. Such observances of the liturgical calendar are shared by Catholics who observe the extraordinary calendar and prefer to pray the Extraordinary Form Mass, also known as the Tridentine Latin Mass. As a Filipino-Catholic, I find such observances and practices very beneficial to bringing back or increasing the sacredness of Advent, especially within the traditions of my Filipino culture.
Many Catholics may have heard of the Filipino Advent tradition called Simbang Gabi because its popularity has spread throughout the world. In general, it is a nine day novena of Masses during the Advent season that ends on or just before Christmas Eve, which typically takes place at nine different alternating churches. It is rich with Filipino culture, prayer, song, and even food, which is served at receptions after each Mass. This cultural gem is becoming more universal as increasing amounts of non-Filipino Catholics are including it into their Christmas preparations.
Here in the greater Chicagoland area, it has truly sparked an interest in so many of its Dioceses. Since the mid 1980’s, the Chicago, Joliet, and Rockford Dioceses have embraced it, and they now attract thousands of people to their Simbang Gabi Masses. This is especially true about the final night, which is almost always at standing-room-only capacity because the Bishop is typically the celebrant. Its popularity was especially shared by the late Cardinal Francis George, who celebrated many of the Simbang Gabi Masses.
Not all Filipinos, however, are as thrilled about the Simbang Gabi Masses here in America. A growing number of Filipinos are concerned about its increasing lack of focus on Advent, and how overly festive the liturgy can get. One anonymous Filipino, whom we’ll call Mr. Pinoy, was asked why he wasn’t partaking in the festive reception of a Simbang Gabi this year. He answered “It’s Advent; a time for penance and prayer and yet at Mass we laugh and sing joyful Christmas songs and wish everyone a Merry Christmas like it’s already Christmas. What happened to Advent? Are we all now like the secular world that begins Christmas season after Halloween and dumps our Christmas trees in the trash the day after Christmas season just starts?”
Now, before we rush to derogative conclusions about this man, one might want to take a step back and reflect on his comments. He does have a point about the season of Advent, which the Catholic Catechism teaches in paragraph 524 as, “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor's birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: "He must increase, but I must decrease."
Mr. Pinoy is correct. Advent distinguishes itself from Christmas in that it is a time for preparation, a time of decreasing ourselves while looking forward to Christ’s birth and incarnation. In fact, many even refer to it as “Little Lent” because of its penitential and prayerful preparations. This is why Catholics are not suppose to sing Christmas hymns, or use Christmas readings in Mass until December 25th, the first day of the Christmas season. Yet, there is sometimes more laughter than solemnity during Mass, and almost every Simbang Gabi today in the Chicagoland area sings Christmas songs. In fact, at one of this year’s Simbang Gabi Masses, it came as a surprise by a visiting missionary priest from the Philippines, who concelebrated Mass, to hear Tagalog Christmas songs during Mass. In his concluding talk he even referenced a particular song, and then said, “But we won’t sing it [the song] today because it’s not yet Christmas.” Yet, the choir sang it anyway.
Mr. Pinoy definitely has a point; one that should be looked at closer by Simbang Gabi organizers and priests. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of ignorance and misinformation about its history, which can lead to things like the singing of Christmas hymns, and sometimes even liturgical abuses. This may come as a surprise for many FIlipinos, but Mr. Pinoy’s concerns have seeds going as far back to when these novena Masses were introduced in the Philippines sometime during the mid 1600’s.
Important Unfamiliar History
At that time the novena Masses were known as Misa de Aguinaldo. According to historical researcher Jesson Gonzaga Allerite, the Spanish word “Aguinaldo”, which is Mozarabic in origin, means “gift” and even a “carol”. These novena Masses were done in preparation for Christmas in honor of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary wherein Churches in Spain provided food after the Mass to the needy, hence the word “Aguinaldo”. Before reaching the Philippines, they were traditionally practiced in Spain nine days before Christmas during the dawn hours.
These Latin dawn Masses were called “Missa Rorate” coming from the Introit or opening Psalm accompanying it “Rorate caeli desuper, et nuber pluant justum” (“Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just”). Due to the darkness of early dawn, candles were used for practical purposes, as well as to remind the faithful of the “Light that is to come.” Hence, these Masses were also known as the Golden Mass or Misa Aurea. Mr. Allerite believes this was most probably the precursor of the Misas de Aguinaldo in Spain, and later in the Philippines and the rest of the New World. By the way, one can still attend a Latin Rorate Mass during Advent these days at Churches like St. John Cantius in Chicago.
Contrary to popular belief, Masses were not celebrated at dawn to accommodate farmers who began tending to their fields early. Rather, the timing of the Mass was determined by the canonical hours of the day, which goes back to the first century A.D. The writings of Tertullian (160-220 AD) confirm that the ancient custom of praying at certain hours had continued in the Christian community:
“As regards the time, there should be no lax observation of certain hours – I mean of those common hours which have long marked the divisions of the day, the third, the sixth, and the ninth, and which we may observe in Scripture to be more solemn than the rest.”[i]
Feasts were normally celebrated after the terce hour, which was when our Lord was condemned by Pilate, and when the Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles. Since Mass was forbidden to be held at night, dawn became the appropriate time.This bit of history is very important because it establishes the true roots of Simbang Gabi as coming from earlier traditions and the Mass of that time, which is the Latin Tridentine Mass.
From Permission to Abuse
On August 5, 1586, Pope Sixtus V promulgated his bull Licet at the request of Augustinian Fray Diego de Soria, which granted an indult (exception) that gave permission for the faithful to gain access of the Misas de Aguinaldo in churches under the Augustinian Order throughout the New World. Interestingly, in order to promote Church attendance, the Pope granted a partial indulgence of approximately twenty two years in perpetuity to the natives who (1) visited the churches of the Augustinians on the feasts of the Blessed Virgin, or of Saint Augustine, or of other saints of the Order, or of Saint Lazarus, or of Saint Michael the Archangel; or (2) attended the Misas de Aguinaldo in honor of the virginity of the Blessed Virgin. To gain the indulgence, the natives must pray (1) for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church, (2) for the propagation of the Catholic faith, and (3) for the constancy of those newly converted to the Catholic Faith. [ii]
From the beginning, Filipinos embraced the novena Masses, but eventually untraditional practices added by Filipinos caught the attention of the see of Manila, Archbishop Felipe Pargo. According to Allerite, the Filipinos developed a habit of singing Christmas carols in the vernacular, which was at the time prohibited with the exception of the entrance and recessional songs. “The wording of the order was very severe. The practice was described as along the lines of ‘perversion of doctrine.’ It is important to point out, however, that abuses such as this were not limited to the Philippines, but was happening elsewhere, even in the mother land – Spain.
At the time, the master of ceremonies of the Cathedral of Seville, Don Diego Díaz de Escobar, complained to the Sacred Congregation of Rites of abuses committed in many churches in Spain, and asked for a suitable remedy for each of them. Among them were abuses specific to the Misas de Aguinaldo. His complaint read:
“Through nine days before the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, at dawn, Masses (which are commonly called misas de aguilando) of the feasts of the Virgin Mother of God are celebrated not only on ferial days, but also on feasts of the double class and on Sundays, with Gloria and Credo and one collect, under the pretext of devotion of the people, to which days there should be much suitable remedies for better celebration. For many laypersons assemble in the choir in order to sing, and they sing certain ditties provoking laughter, at a time and in a place where they are by no means fitting. To this habit a suitable remedy ought to be used, and thoroughly by this medium the scandal mayeth be taken away.”[iii]
On January 16, 1677, the Sacred Congregation of Rites responded to Don Diego’s complaints in a rescript that said:
“Let all the usages or, as We better say it, the abuses related, as they are repugnant to the rubrics and to the opinions of those to whom these were related, ought to be destroyed altogether. They are not indeed praiseworthy, nay more scandalous, most especially to those who love the observance of good ceremonies.”[iv]
When this rescript reached the Philippines in 1680, Archbishop Felipe Pardo suppressed the misas de aguinaldo altogether. Fortunately, the same Sacred Congregation of Rites sent out another rescript on January 24, 1682 clarifying matters regarding the Misa de Aguinaldo stating:
“Is it licit or can licence be conceded, that in the first Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is said early in the morning and with great solemnity on the days before the Nativity, at which Mass all people assisteth with great devotion, the Gloria and the Credo be said, notwithstanding the three collects, considering that these Masses with solemnity are thought to be for a grave cause, when the ancient and immemorial devotion of the servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary mayeth apply . . . and the rest of the Masses, which are said after the first Mass with solemnity, be said without Gloria and Credo.”[v]
The Church had every right to be concerned about preserving the Advent liturgy then, especially regarding song selection, music, and the use of the Gloria and Credo. The concern of laughter provoking songs then is a clear example of why festive Christmas songs are inappropriate for Advent. Unlike today, both music and hymns of the Misa de Aguinaldo was always in Latin Gregorian Chant. Many people these days are unaware that Gregorian chant is supposed to be the preferred music for liturgy today, as Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium states in chapter VI, paragraph 116:
“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”
This obviously isn’t the case today. Instead, people like Mr. Pinoy have to endure festive Christmas songs during Advent.
The Church has always had a clear understanding of the sacredness of Advent, and this is why She took great steps to protect it many years ago by ensuring the liturgy, which is at the heart of the Catholic faith, was not compromised. Although most Novus Ordo Simbang Gabi Masses are properly done according to the rubrics, every now and then abuses find their way into the liturgy, usually under the pretext of creativity or the so-called "new evangelization." Regardless of the reason, anytime the Mass becomes anything other than the un-bloody re-representation of Christ’s “sacrifice” on Calvary, abuses are more likely to occur.
Restore the Sacred
In America, it’s becoming more common to begin hearing Christmas songs at shopping centers as early as November 1st, the day after Halloween. If you think that’s early, one can begin hearing Christmas music as early as September in the Philippines! Now throw in all the commercialism, shopping and festive activities. By the time Christmas nearly arrives, most people are already wishing for it to end before it even starts on Christmas day! It’s no wonder so many people are “burnt out” so soon. Many of these people even throw out their Christmas trees the day of or after Christmas. This should come as no surprise when Advent is discounted or left out altogether.
When Advent becomes a season of spiritual deepening and preparation through prayer and penance, Christmas day becomes the pinnacle event of the year. Not only that, but the following twelve or forty days (depending on what liturgical calendar you follow) that make up the Christmastide season provides a lasting sense of inner joy that only Christmas can bring. Celebrating Simbang Gabi as if Christmas has already arrived can only be counterproductive.
This is why the sacredness of Advent, which the early Misas de Aguinaldo fully possessed, needs to be restored in our modern day society. Arguably, the best way of doing this is by celebrating the nine novena Masses in the Extraordinary form, otherwise known as the traditional Tridentine Latin Mass (TLM); The Mass Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, was “never judicially abrogated,” and refers to it as the Catholic Church’s “holiest and highest possession.”[vi]
Five Reasons Why the Tridentine Latin Mass
There are many more than five reasons to choose the TLM, but let’s take a look at five key reasons here. First, as alluded above; it is the Mass that Simbang Gabi is rooted in. Up until Pope Paul VI issued his Novus Ordo Missae (New Order of the Mass) in 1969, Masses were TLM. Not only that, it is the Mass of all time, which was at the center of all lives of our Saints. In fact, it goes as far back to the days of the apostles.
Secondly, the sacred ethos of the Mass allows the faithful a unique opportunity to commune and deepen their faith in Christ. The Mass is said with the priest and congregants “facing” Christ, just as how everyone faced Him during his crucifixion on Calvary. Its prayers, solemnity, ample silence, and heavenly music combine to make up that one single action of Christ that takes us out of mere chronological time and into the single instant of our redemption made present again on the altar at every celebration of Holy Mass.
Thirdly, the faithful pray the prayers that contribute to the fullness of the Mass, as was practiced for centuries before they were either removed or suppressed when the Novus Ordo became the ordinary Mass. Such prayers include, but are not limited to Psalm 42 (Judica me), the secondConfiteor, Aufer a nobis, Oramus te Domine, Libera nos after the Pater noster (with invocation of the Saints), Haec commixtio (including the important word consecration), Placeat tibi, triple Kyrie eleison,triple Domine non sum dignus, last Gospel (John 1:1-14), and the Leonine Prayers (AveMaria/Hail Mary 3x, Salve Maria/Hail Holy Queen, Sancte Michael Archangele/Prayer to St. Michael). All these prayers have significant importance in the lives of the faithful.
Fourth, the faithful receive the most Holy Eucharist on the tongue while kneeling, which is the Church’s and all the previous Pope’s preferred method of receiving Communion. When Christ touches the faithful’s tongue at the moment of receiving His body, he is blessed by the priest with the words, “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen” (May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto life everlasting. Amen).
Last and most important, the faithful partake in the unmistakable re-presentation of Christ’s “sacrifice” on Calvary. In the TLM, the major events of Christ’s passion on the cross can be followed throughout the Mass. Here are some examples:
- When the priest goes to the altar, Christ goes to Mount Olivet.
- When the priest commences Mass, Christ begins to pray.
- When the priest prays the Confiteor, Christ falls down and sweats blood.
- When the priest ascends the altar and kisses it, Christ is betrayed by Judas with a kiss.
- When the priest goes to the Epistle side, Christ is bound and taken to Annas.
- When the priest uncovers the chalice, Christ is shamefully exposed.
- When the priest covers the chalice, Christ is crowned with thorns.
- When the priest prays in a low voice after making the Momento, Christ meets His mother and other pious women.
- When the priest says aloud “Nobis quoque peccatoribus,” Christ prays on the cross for men.
- When the priest says the last prayers, Christ teaches for forty days.
- When the priest says the Ite Missa est and Last Gospel, Christ send the apostles to all parts of the world to preach the Gospel
Room for TLM Simbang Gabi ?
More and more churches in the Philippines, such as Holy Family in the Diocese of Cubao, Our Lady of the Assumption in the Diocese of Maasin, and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Bohol, are having TLM Simbang Gabi Masses. Like here, the churches are also jam packed. Sadly, this cannot be said for the Chicagoland area because there are currently no TLM Simbang Gabi Masses in any of its surrounding dioceses. This may also be the case for the entire Midwest and beyond.
For the Filipino community to have TLM novena Masses, an initiative to restore the sacredness of Misa de Aguinaldo in Simbang Gabi needs to take place. There are already several churches in the area who offer the TLM on a regular basis, but will the Filipino community reach out and utilize them? Only time will tell.
[i] “De Oratione,” xxiii, ssv, in P.L., I,1191-3
[i], [ii], [iii], [iv], [v], Allerite, Jesson. The history of the misa de aguinaldo: from Spain to the Philippine Islands. 2013
[vi] Ratzinger Salt of the Earth (1997)