One of the Gospel stories that we shall hear in the coming days will be about the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. The passage speaks about the encounter among cousins. Mary with her first cousin Elizabeth; Jesus with his second cousin John the Baptist. In the Gospel account of the Visitation, Luke describes the attitude of Mary by saying that she set out in haste to visit her cousin (see Luke 1:39).
Mary was a woman in a hurry to see her cousin. She really wanted to be with Elizabeth before she gave birth to John. She was a woman in haste to witness the “impossible” thing that God has done to her cousin. She was anxious to be of service to Elizabeth in her time of need.
The attitude of Mary — that of being in a hurry, of being in haste — is an apt description of the many things that we can observe during the Christmas season. There is plenty of movement during Christmas. There is a sense of quickness, of urgency. There is an air of excitement.
The Haste to Begin the Season
Here in the Philippines, our excitement for Christmas begins with the so-called “-ber” months. At the onset of September 1, radio stations will start playing Christmas carols. These songs increase in frequency until Christmas Day arrives. The streets slowly become illuminated with Christmas lights and, like the Christmas songs played on the radio, they increase in number as Christmas Day nears.
Then the night markets also start to sprout up with different Christmas sales. Shopping malls begin advertising their own sales and different companies start bringing out their different promotions for the Yuletide season. The days before Christmas becomes a beehive of activity. Everybody is in a hurry to buy gifts for their loved ones.
Yet, there is also another type of haste that one can observe during this season. Despite all the commercialization of Christmas going on, it cannot be denied that many tend to be kinder and more generous during this time. Here in the Philippines, many companies will hold their Christmas parties and get-togethers in orphanages or in poorer communities. It is not surprising to find heads of companies and their employees in a hurry to buy all sorts of Christmas packages, goodies, and toys in bulk. They do this so that they can be given away to those who have less during Christmas.
The Christmas Novena
Externally, there is much noise to the Christmas preparation that we have in our country. But then, something different happens when December 16 arrives. Nine days before Christmas, all Catholic churches in the Philippines, from the cathedrals in the major cities to the smallest chapels in the provinces, are filled up every day, as Catholics attend the dawn Masses. This is one of the traditions that the Spaniards left us when they evangelized the Philippines in the 16th century.
For nine days, young and old flock to churches early in the morning to attend the novena Masses for Christmas. Some of our parishes even have an anticipated Mass in the evening for those who cannot attend the dawn Masses. (“Anticipated Masses”, such as Saturday evening Masses in the U.S., have the readings and prayers for the next calendar day.)
These Eucharistic celebrations are well attended. In fact, many Filipino Catholics, who seldom go to church the whole year find themselves waking up early in the morning to attend these nine days. After these early morning Masses, Filipino Catholics will once again flock to churches on Christmas Eve. This is one of the joyful Eucharistic celebrations we have for the whole year.
Catechesis and Community
The nine-day early morning Masses serve many purposes in a Catholic country like ours. First, these Masses become the spiritual backbone of our Christmas season. In the midst of all the noise of the season, these gatherings allow the Christian community to come in haste to celebrate and listen to the Gospel stories of the First Christmas . These become wonderful catechetical moments for the Church. For many of our parish leaders, this is the best and only time to really remind Catholics of the basic truths of the faith and how it connects to daily life.
These Masses also serve to remind the Christian community what Christmas is all about. This is the time to hear about how the different characters of Christmas prepared themselves for the Birth of Jesus. By listening to these events together, the Catholic community revisits their traditions and attempts to give meaning to these traditions in the present context.
The nine-day dawn Masses also become a way by which our families are brought together for the season. It is a common sight in the Philippines to find families leaving their homes early in the morning during this season to attend the Masses. This becomes wonderful moments for parents to pass on to their children this wonderful tradition.
It is not only individual families that are brought closer; in many parts of our country, the small community parishes take this time to be bonded together. Many of our parishes have the tradition of having community breakfasts after the Holy Mass every day of the novena. They serve simple meals, usually consisting of rice cakes and a hot drink of coffee or chocolate. Simple as they are, they all become meaningful during this season. It is a time to remember what has transpired during the year. It is a time to welcome those who may have been away from the community for quite a time because of work in the city or even in a foreign country.
Hope and Filial Trust in God
Of course, one can argue that these spiritual preparations are only external manifestations and do not really indicate the depth of our faith. Yet, for many of us in the Philippines, these are the moments wherein much of our faith is nourished and kept alive. Despite the growing cynicism that the Church faces in our country each year, the magic of Christmas has not yet lost its luster for many of us.
The dawn Masses prior to Christmas best reflect our very own brand of spirituality. While, there may be a growing number of Catholics who might be disillusioned with the Church hierarchy, many would still attend the dawn Masses with a sense of hope and filial trust in God. In these moments, the institutional Church takes a back seat; and what we get is a vibrant and living Church as the People of God, with all its flaws , imperfections and hopes.
The beautiful thing about this tradition is that, in many of the communities that Filipinos Catholics find themselves in foreign countries, they also have brought this tradition with them. I would not be surprised if many of our Catholic Stand readers find some of their parishes open earlier than usual the nine days prior to Christmas, and Filipinos flocking there to attend the Mass. If by chance you do find them, I do encourage our readers to come and join them. Be part of the community. Allow this wonderful tradition of welcoming the Birth of Jesus to enliven your Christmas preparation.
There are many things that keep us in haste during Christmas. There is the haste in buying all things needed for our own celebrations; there is the haste in buying gifts to be given away. But above all this, find time to be in haste to nourish your faith. Join the community. Listen to the stories that shaped the first Christmas.