[Homily: Simbanggabi. ADDU Martinez Hall, Matina. Dec. 24, 2018, 5:30 am.]
Today is Christmas Eve. Let me tell you a story of an experience I had of Christmas Eve in Bavaria, Germany, long, long ago. I had been sent for higher studies in philosophy in Berchmanskolleg, Munich, but for my pastoral work I was assigned to the Pfarrkuratie Sankt Ulrich in Unterschleissheim, a Pre-Parish Catholic community in the northern part of Munich, which was then still quasi rural and rustic. I was about 40 years younger and perhaps 40 pounds lighter than I am today. I still had a credible amount of black hair. It was long, long ago.
It being my first Christmas Eve in Germany, the Priest-in-Charge, Fr. Hans Krämmer, invited me to join him, his mother and his household for Christmas Eve dinner. I was happy to say yes. The plan was we would have dinner in their home, then go to the wooden church for Midnight Mass. It was then that I experienced the special way the Germans – or perhaps, to be more accurate, the Bavarians – celebrate Christmas.
There is a song that is central to the German celebration of Christmas. It was composed 200 years ago this year in Oberdorf in Burgenland, in the southeastern part of Austria, by Franz Xaver Gruber. It has since become among the most sung Christmas carols in the world. In German, Silent Night, Holy Night goes: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. Alles shläft. Einsam wacht nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe in lockigem Haar. Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh! … That Christmas Eve I found out that it is a favorite song because the German celebration of Christmas is really of a silent night, holy night. It is a solemn, reflective, silent celebration that begins in the home with the family gathered for the Christmas Eve meal. Served is usually fish, Forelle or trout, because traditionally one abstained from meat the day before Christmas.
After the meal, the head of the family goes quietly into the living room and behind a closed door prepares the Christmas tree, a fir tree, in German, den Tannenbaum. He lights the live candles. Atop the tree is the star, and the lit candles represent the heavenly lights shining on the Christmas Crib, the Belen, with delicately carved figurines of Jesus, Mary and the newborn Child worshipped by shepherds from the countryside and by angels on high.
When all is prepared, the father calls the family into the living room. With faces aglow the family gathers together around the Belen. Then through simple prayers they welcome the Child in the manger, the Christmas Gift of the Father to humankind. Celebrating this Gift, the family then exchanges gifts, the German Bescherung.
After this, the family goes together to the church for Midnight Mass. In the church which is elegantly decorated, the Midnight Mass is celebrated. The atmosphere is festive but solemn. But in the Midnight Mass all crescendos to the point at the end of the Mass when the community sings together powerfully, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht…
That’s the way Christmas Eve is normally celebrated. But during my first celebration of Christmas Eve in Germany something happened. Before the Mass I received a note that there was a group of Filipinos who had just arrived in the church. They had been participating in a world convention of the Christian Life Communities in Rome and were on their way to Augsburg. But they had heard that I was in Unterschleissheim, so they came. Part of their note was that they would be willing to sing during the Midnight Mass. I passed the note to the Father Krämmer. He said they were welcome, and they were also welcome to sing.
Well, the Christmas Eve liturgy proceeded with great solemnity. The angelic voices of the children were complemented by soft folk melodies: flutes and harps, xylophones and strings. The Christ Child was lain in the manger. Then during the Communion, the people welcomed him into their hearts and into their homes.
After the communion, just before the great traditional solemn singing of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, the 15 or so Filipinos came forward, were introduced, and invited to sing a Filipino Christmas song.
They came all bundled up in sweaters, overcoats, shawls, and woolen bonnets. In the cold wintry church, they were freezing. They faced the congregation. They pulled out their makeshift percussion instruments which included a tambourine and sticks for banging and spoons for clanging, and burst forth with, “Ang Pasko ay sumapit. Tayo ay manggsiawit ng magagandang himig dahil sa ang Diyos ay pag-ibig!” They sang with gusto and joy, rocking to the beat of their own singing. “Nang si Kristo’y isilang, may tatlong Haring nagsidalaw. … At magbuhat ngayon kahit hindi Pasko ay magbigayan!”
The solemnity of the German Christmas Eve was broken. The revered Austrian Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht was totally overwhelmed by the Filipino, “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit…” The stunned German congregation didn’t quite know how to respond to their out-of-the-box explosion of Christmas joy. So, they just burst out in sustained applause as the Filipinos smiled back with glee.
For many years after, the people of Unterschleissheim recounted the story of their encounter of Filipinos at that Midnight Mass urging us all to be happy because Christmas has come and urging people to be generous and forgiving in season or out of season – in the Christmas Season or out of the Christmas Season.
Our Mass for today began with the prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay… By your coming raise us to the joy of your Kingdom!” Joy because: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high has broken upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79). Whether with German solemnity or Filipino vivacity, whether with Franz Xaver Gruber or Lolo Pepe Cenizal or even with Joe Mari Chan, let it be genuine joy in your families and in your hearts at the coming of our Messiah and Savior, Jesus, Emmanuel – God with us!