[Homily. First Day of Simbang Gabi, 2013. Chapel of the Assumption, ADDU]
In the whole liturgical year, this is perhaps my favorite Mass. Why? Perhaps because it is so irrational, yet beloved. Because it is so unnecessary, yet compelling. Because it is so crazy, yet practiced. It’s just past 4:30 in the morning. It’s raining. It’s not a holiday of obligation. It’s not even a holiday. Later, there’s work. And classes. Yet so many of you are here! You have to be a bit “out of the box” to come to this Mass. “Out of the box,” I said. Others would say, “out of your mind”!
There’s something magical about this hour at this time of the year. Or is the more proper word “romantic”? When Advent shifts from proclaiming the Second Coming of Our Lord at the end of time, to heralding the birth of the Lord in the fullness of time. The mugginess of the night shifts into breezes cool or even cold; shorts and tank tops are out, sweaters and jackets are in. Frowns are out, smiles are in. Faces glow. The magnificent stars in the heavens are mimicked by dancing, flickering, twinkling lights that people put up only at this time of the year. They recall a star that once led kings journeying to find the Messiah to a stable and a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lain in a manger.
“Simbang Gabi, simula ng Pasko.” Simbang Gabi, already the beginning of Christmas for that irrational, illogical, out-of-the-box group of Filipino Christians, yourselves and myself, who can’t seem to wait for Christmas, and so at this unholy hour stealthily already begin to celebrate it, no longer in Advent purple, but in Christmas white, no longer suppressing the Gloria but shouting it out, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth Peace to women and men of good will” (Lk 2:14), anticipating that for which humanity has long pined.
Peace to women and men, because of the birth of the Prince of Peace! Peace to women and men, because of the Birth of him who was to manifest divine love in a world of indifference and God’s compassion in a sea of sin! Peace because of him who “did not think equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature.” (Phil 2:5-7). Peace because of this spirited God who comes in the flesh, loves in the flesh, and in this hour manifests himself in the vulnerability and fragility of a new born baby.
In this unholy hour, for those who think beyond reason – “out of the box” – that box that compels endless consumption, reduces love to cheap bangles and beads, and Christmas to flimsy tinsel and plastic trees – it is possible, it is necessary, to recall one’s waiting, one’s personal yearning, not for a new iPad or a new celfon or a new SLR, but for this encounter with a merciful God who encounters us in compassion. In the Belen, this compassionate God appeals to us in the soft neediness of a baby born in the hardness of poverty, drawing us to itself in beauty, challenging us in incongruity. There were shepherds then who came to worship. Eventually, there were even kings. For, as the Scriptures said, “he emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on the Cross.” The Lord of the Manger, adored, was the Lord on the Cross, crucified, saying from his moment of birth, “You, you I love.”
St. Ignatius was a university man. He was not unfamiliar with the rigorous demands of reason. Reasonable men could not behave like pigs. Reasonable men could not love in pure lust. Reasonable men could not be loved without reciprocation. Reasonable men could not ignore the call of a King. For Ignatius there was a reasonable way of responding to a God who loves and calls to discipleship. It was measured. It was controlled.
But there was also a way of responding that went beyond reason, and aspired to distinction. This was the way that soared beyond the minimum standards of reason and entered the realm of outstanding, heroic love.
Simbang Gabi is something like that: at 4:30 in the morning, it is illogical, out of the box, beyond reason, something that a person does only because of a special, exhilirating love. It is our way of responding out of the box to God’s out-of-the-box love. It is our way of coming closer to this Child in the manger, which is the same as coming closer to this Messiah crucified on the Cross, eliciting from us a response. Beyond reason, Ignatius said that if we wish to distinguish ourselves in responding to his love, we must beg to be brought more deeply into the mystery of the Cross, the core of the mystery of the Manger, expressing the Heart of the God of Compassion
Pope Francis says, “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts of all who encounter Jesus.” Beyond reason, that’s Jesus in the manger. Beyond reason, that Jesus on the Cross. That’s the Gospel. There is no Gospel without the Cross. There is no Christmas without Jesus in the manger. In encountering him beyond reason at Simbang Gabi, may our hearts be filled with joy!