The Silence of Simbanggabi

[Homily: Misa de Gallo, ADDU, Dec. 16, 2012]

In the Philippines the Christmas Season began with the “-ber” months. That was a good three-and-a-half months ago. It was then that the great yearly metamorphosis began. From the staid scenes of everyday routines of work and play, the signs of Christmas have re-emerged, as they do year in and year out: the Christmas carols, the Christmas yearning for an absent love one in a Season of Togetherness, the Christmas lights, the transformation of homes and workplaces and streets into the reds and greens, the flickering lights, the Christmas trees, the rolly polly image of Santa Claus riding around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, mounting a challenge to the sublime image of the “Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.”

Christmas, of course, is more fun in the Philippines. The long Christmas preparation crescendos in the novena celebration of Simbanggabi – that we begin celebrating together this morning – where at 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning, the Filipino faithful meet in their churches before the dawning of the first light, themselves in worship to anticipate the proximate coming of the Light. The Light is so intensely anticipated, that it is as it were already present, warranting the liturgical bracket around the Advent observance in purple, and compelling the celebration in white vestments, and calling forth the congregation’s song of praise to the Father: Glory to God in the highest…! At these dawn Masses there is a special veneration for Mary, the youthful Jewish girl, who was chosen by the Father to bring the Light into the world, and who herself chose to respond, “Let it be done unto me as you will.”. We who have so often brought anything but light into the world, are acutely aware that it is possible to say no to the Light, to reject the light, to rebel, and revel in the night, and so to be an exponent of darkness, depression, death. So at the dawn Masses before Christmas we venerate her specially who said yes and gave birth to Light.

At this Mass the Gloria is sung, and despite the Season of Advent there is openness for the songs of Christmas. But at Simbanggabi, with its sounds of Christmas, there is always a special sound of silence that comes with the cool morning breeze – a welcome silence that breaks the hectic chaos of the season: running here and there, worrying about the Christmas table, worrying about the Christmas décor, worrying about the Christmas gifts for special people. This is done on top of the worldly business of the season, the special busy-ness in entrepreneurship that comes only at this time of the year, or the exams that have to be taken, the papers that have to be corrected, despite all the chores in love that one must accomplish in this season. The special sound of silence at this Mass reminds us of that, doesn’t it? In the end, no matter how harassed one might feel, it’s about love – my love for my child, my love for my husband or wife, even my love for the person who reaches out to me in need. These may be the Lumads on the streets, they may also be one’s classmates, current or of long ago. Recently, here at the Ateneo, there was a student who fainted; she needed to be brought to the hospital. She had not eaten for over a day! Apparently, her allowance from abroad had been delayed. She was a person in need to whom no one was sensitive; she was a person who in her sensitivity could not manifest her need. The sound of silence at Simbanggabi can recall our love for such persons in need, and our need to reach out.

This year, that silence may allow us to hear anew the howling of the violent winds that ripped the trees out of forests, flattened proud banana plantations, decimated stately coconut groves, caused land to slide and tunnels to cave in, bringing injury and death to not just hundreds but thousands of people, some of whom we actually know. It was the same wind that deprived people in Compostela Valley and in Davao Oriental not only of their food and water for a week, but of their livelihood for half a lifetime or more. The studies of many of our students are threatened. Today, for them: a numbness, a paralysis – darkness, depression, if not despair. For others, however, because of the pain in their bellies, and the sickness in their children: anger: anger at relief goods stockpiled under the purview of powerful people, and undistributed; anger at the inability of those in power to make power work for those screaming for help; anger that breaks into warehouses and attacks delivery trucks on the roads, anger anchored in hunger.

Knowing how close Compostela Valley is to Davao, and knowing that the winds of that same storm buffeted Davao City, as Davao had not experienced in over two generations, at this Mass we may feel grateful that we are numbered not among those who need assistance, but among those who can give assistance. With so much suffering so close by, can Christmas be celebrated in the spirit of business –as-usual? The silence at this Simbanggabi Mass may invite us to look at the way we’re responding to this crisis in our neighboring provinces. Many schools and offices have given up their Christmas parties in favor of using what would have been spent for the victims of Typhoon Pablo. We are being invited not to give up the celebration of Christmas, but to find a deeper core of celebration in being women and men for others – just as the Father manifested himself to be fully “for others” at the first Christmas.

For this deeper core of celebration, we are being invited to rejoice, to rejoice that the Savior is at hand. He is present. He is present in Christians who at Christmas walk an extra mile to make sure no one is lonely. He is present in Christians who share of their clothing and of their food for those who are in need. He is present in people who stand up and protest irresponsibility in the discharge of public office. He is present in “the least” of our brothers and sisters, whom the Lord loves as his own. He is not only present; he is incarnate in people who live his spirit of compassion, love and service.

In his presence, we rejoice. It is a presence which fills our lives, even when we feel him absent, even when we beg for his coming: “Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus, come!”

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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