The notes were soothing and familiar. Ever since we resettled in America, I’ve always wanted to attend Simbang Gabi, a cherished Christmas tradition back home. Joining in the singing of popular Pilipino church hymns was both inspiring and instructional because nothing clears a Pinoy’s head – or soul for that matter – faster than reliving Christmas in the Philippines.
Christmas has come to symbolize man’s deepest yearnings – peace, hope, love, charity and goodwill to all. I may be a bit prejudiced when observing that there’s no Christmas like the ones in the Philippines. It’s melded the country’s colonial experience – from being under both Spain and the United States – to form a rather unique set of practices and traditions.
And Filipino immigrants have carried these beliefs and rituals to the US. The Simbang Gabi quickly became a window for people wishing to peek into Filipino character and culture. The food, the songs and the family core of the Filipino Christmas masses – whether at dawn or at dusk – have started to filter into American Catholicism.
While Filipino priests have presided over most Masses, the non-Filipino clergy has started to embrace the centuries-old Filipino tradition. That could be testament to the Filipino’s growing influence inside the church, and conversely, sign that the Catholic Church in America recognizes both the power and yet untapped potential of the Filipino devotion.
It was our first time to hear Mass at St. Theresa’s in Ashburn. After the Mass came the feast, composed of Pinoy comfort food – pancit, arroz caldo, puto, cassava cake – donated by parishioners. There we met Ben Manalaysay, a wellness consultant, who led preparations for the Simbang Gabi in Ashburn. He is part of the Filipino Ministry of Northern Virginia. This is being duplicated in DC, Metro Baltimore and other areas of Maryland, in the Hampton Roads region, etc.
The “salo-salo” are also community events that have served to tighten connections among Fil-Ams in the Metro DC region. In many ways, church socials have become the catalyst for greater Fil-Am and Filipino engagement here.
The Simbang Gabi is one of those rare instances when we can get to feel like Filipinos again, that feeling of affinity and pride (not too unlike watching a Manny Pacquiao fight but with a more defined spiritual ardor).
One of my favorite refrains is “Panginoon, turuan mo ako maging bukas palad” (Lord, teach me to open my heart); the words come across as a plaintive plea for divine instruction on charity. Why does that sometimes feel like the scarcest thing in the world today?
“The environment today is not great,” observed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, referring to what he sees would be a “knock down, drag out” political contest in next year’s elections. He echoed Pres. Donald Trump’s wish to find a bipartisan way forward but recent experience has demonstrated just how distant a goal that could be.
The news back home could be just as distressing – the loss of life and worse, that people were being forced to make very subtle, imperceptible choices, weighing beliefs and values in determining the morality of purging the dregs of society by any means necessary, even when most don’t have control over their dilemma.
The coming year could bring more of the same. The Philippines and United States are led by septuagenarians who’ve risen to their present station doing the things their way, have succeeded and have been rewarded. There is really little reason for them to change.
The quest for charity can only continue, hopefully intensify in 2018. The political intramurals, especially in the US which holds midterm elections in November (the Philippines will hold theirs in 2019) are anticipated to steadily climb to fever pitch in the months ahead. Likely to be caught in the vortex of this contest are issues affecting immigrants and refugees; North Korea and the Middle East; race and religion that on their own fuel their own tensions without added vexation from domestic, partisan politics.
The Simbang Gabi, intended to prepare the faithful for the birth of Jesus, also allows us to contemplate on the meaning of Christmas. Festive though they may be, it fulfills a more serious task – reminding us just how much we need a Redeemer in our times.