Have you ever walked a road at night with your path lit only by starlight? In the barrios of the Philippines, stars are the lamps that guide the nighttime traveler. During the Advent and Christmas seasons, one will find parols (star lanterns) hanging from windows. Bamboo sticks and rice paper form a three-dimensional star in which a light bulb or candle is placed so it may glow. (In import stores such as Cost Plus, you might find some variations on these parols for your own home.)
Parols come from the Filipino celebration of Simbang Gabi or “church in the night.” The Catholic missionaries in the Philippines in the 16th century, conscious of the work schedule of the townspeople, began celebrating Mass early in the morning before farmers began their work in the fields and after the fishermen came in from their night’s work. This allowed the whole community to gather for Eucharist, catechesis, and fellowship. Parols lit their way to the church.
These Masses came to be known as Misa Aurea or “golden Mass” or Misa de Gallo (“Mass of the rooster”) because they were celebrated at dawn. The Masses celebrated the Incarnation of the Word through Mary’s “yes.” They were festive celebrations with Christmas carols sung before Mass, catechesis, faith sharing, and of course, lots of food afterward. These nine days embodied God’s desire to be human and the Filipino’s joy for that humanness.
Teach your RCIA participants the secret of a joyful Advent
Filipinos in the United States and Canada are constantly inculturating our traditional rituals into our parishes. Simbang Gabi, in particular, is a popular tradition that is celebrated in almost every diocese. What can RCIA teams, catechumens and candidates learn from Simbang Gabi to better prepare for the Incarnation?
Filipinos don’t have the same strict boundaries between Advent and Christmas that some other cultures do. Perhaps our parishes and our RCIA groups can learn from that. For example, if refraining from singing Christmas carols during Advent is creating more tension than joy, then perhaps we need to reassess why we do that. Do our liturgies and attitudes during Advent express an overly penitential posture? Or rather do we live as we pray, waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ?
Simbang Gabi as the basis of RCIA catechesis
An important component to Simbang Gabi is the intergenerational and catechetical opportunity that flows from these nine days. Filipino families and communities span several generations, and gatherings always include all ages.
- How can these liturgies speak to the both the adult and the child catechumens in the parish?
- What corporal works of mercy can be planned around these celebrations—a visit to an elder-care home or a retreat for single parents?
- Can you plan a discussion of the church’s teaching on social justice and its seamless garment understanding of life sometime during these nine days?
- What take-home activities can you send home with your catechumens to help bring more joy and less stress into these hectic days?
- Can you or someone on your team create a reflection question for each day, based on the gospel of the day, that your catechumens and candidates can discuss in their families?
- Is there a familiar Christmas carol you can use as a springboard for mystagogical reflection, reading the words and looking at the theology behind those lyrics? (For example, what does Jesus’ birth teach us about Christ in the lyrics for “What Child is This?” Can we answer that question that the title suggests—who is and what is this child for me?)
Simbang Gabi can be not only a welcome liturgical tradition in our parishes, but can also be a significant formation opportunity for everyone in the RCIA process.