[Is 56:1-3a,6-8; Jn 5:33-36]
In the media, the Philippines is being advertised as the happiest place on earth at Christmas. I am not sure how that might be proven. But in the Philippines at Christmas, you certainly find many happy people. And I certainly hope that all of you who have come to be part of this Simbanggabi are among the happy people in the Philippines!
Clearly, from the faces I see, you are happy! And perhaps – forgive me if I say it! – also a bit crazy! For in the course of the year, we have Masses and Masses. Daily Masses in our college chapel, and Sunday Masses in our parish churches; they are celebrated at decent times like seven or ten in the morning or six in the evening. But here we are together, happy to be here at 4:30 in the morning, when there is absolutely no obligation to be here, to celebrate together the first of nine days of Simbanggabi! It’s crazy! But its also wonderful, is it not?! It is part of why people say at Christmastime, the Philippines is the happiest place in the world. And of course, for us crazy people, Davao is the happiest place in the Philippines!
Crazy! The truth is, Simbanggabi too, is a bit crazy – part of the indefatigable energy of the Filipino to celebrate Christmas. There is a Season in the liturgical calendar that prepares for Christmas, is there not? That’s the Season of Advent. Advent is a season of waiting, of reflective waiting, of preparing ourselves while waiting for the coming of our Lord. It is an important Season of preparation – not only of setting up Christmas trees and blinking lights – but of interior preparation for the coming of our Lord. The celebration of anything is better – is it not? – if well prepared; and the celebration is intensified if long awaited. Advent, ideally, is observed in that spirit. It is a season when patiently we wait… and consciously we prepare… in order to heighten the celebration! In Advent, we ask, as we must ask: what is it that we rational, educated, well-fed people are waiting for if we already have so much? We ask, whom is it we are waiting for if in life we have already accomplished so much on our own? We ask: are there any obstacles in our behavior, or in our selves within, that would prevent us from welcoming our Lord and Savior within? Important questions, correct?
They are asked in the light of the first reading from Isaiah which says: “Observe what is just, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice about to be revealed.” They are asked in the light of the Gospel where John calls people in darkness to prepare for the coming Light of the Lord.
This is why, in order to promote the interior preparation, Advent distances itself from over-hasty celebration. It reminds us of hundred and hundreds years of the Jewish People’s waiting for the coming of the Messiah. It says, therefore, for the Season we will not use the Gloria. For the season of Advent, the liturgical color will not be white or red or green, but the more staid violet. For the season, the décor in the church should allow that Christmas be celebrated at Christmas – the 25th of December, not the 1st of September!
Of course, we observe Advent in the Philippines. But we observe it in the breach! We observe Advent in the Philippines, but we cheat a little! We observe this season of waiting, even though it is part of our spirit not be able to wait! When a new celfon is announced, we can’t wait to buy it. When a new movie is advertised, we can’t wait to see it! And sometimes, with the stars and the celebrities and find ourselves crazy enough to pay big money to be part of a sneak preview! Simbanggabi is like that. A sneak preview of the real thing, pre-celebrated – no, celebrated already! “Simbanggabi: simula ng Pasko!” – where the purple Advent colors give way to Christmas white, and the Advent ban on the Gloria gives way to its joyful “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” the angels’ song of Christmas praise, and the readings, especially beginning tomorrow, focus more directly on the events immediately leading to the birth of our Lord, who said in today’s proclamation of the Good News: “In the mission the Father gave me, in the works that I have performed, I am the light… I am the way, the truth and the light.”
Simbanggabi – Simula ng Pasko: Christmas already, though it is not yet. It is not yet, because when we understand the full meaning of what Christmas is – Emmanuel, God-with-us, God as Light lighting our lives – we have, in all honesty, to say: it is not yet. It has not penetrated areas of our lives that are still filled with darkness. Sometimes, these areas have to do with areas of our selves that resists the light – areas that are filled with bitterness or disappointment or hate. Sometimes these are areas of deep woundedness that need healing, but which we would rather keep in the dark basements of our lives where they can be denied and forgotten, rather than be exposed to the light. Sometimes these are areas of deep moral vulnerability and sin, but which we would rather not look at because we fear it would cost too much correct. So instead of being able to open our homes and our lives fully to God being with us, at Christmas we are prepared only to open the door a little, just a little, making sure that a chain prevents it from being opened fully – because, heavens, what would happen if God would really enter my home and my life and my heart and be Emmanuel, God with us! What would happen if God being with us, God being with me, I would really feel moved to correct the injustice I have been responsible for in my friend’s life, or if God being with me, I would really feel moved to help those people I know who are homeless and hungry. What would happen to my profits in my business, if God being with me, I would finally pay proper taxes and begin to compensate my enployees properly? Simbanggabi, simula ng Pasko. Christmas… Not yet. But already.
Christmas already, because however we celebrate it in our world, Jesus, the Son of God, is God’s saving Word of Love incarnate in our world, irreversibly, yesterday, today, now and forever. These are what the lights, the lanterns, the Christmas trees, the gift-giving, the colorful Belens are about, are they not: the celebration of God with us. And God is with us when a husband and wife after 5 or 15 or 50 years of married life are still in love with each other, when children can talk to their parents and feel understood and appreciated, when colleagues who have been at war with each other suddenly come to terms with each other. God is with us when the needs of the urban poor are recognized and respected, when the water of the farmers and indigenous peoples is preserved for their use, when the mountains and rivers, oceans and planes are cherished as God’s special gift to us. God is with us. We have only to open our eyes to see.
It’s crazy, isn’t it? Simbanggabi – the celebration of Christmas, not yet, but already! May your participation in Simbanggabi prepare you better to receive Jesus, God with us, into your hearts and homes! May our Simbanggabi be our celebration of God already with us – in the love and resbonsibility we bear for one another and the world he has given us! May Simbanggabi, from deep, deep within, where we in grace encounter God with us, help us to be what the Filipino people are not yet, but already are: the people of God, chosen, shepherded, sanctified and loved by him – the happiest people on earth.