Misa de Aguinaldo, the oldest Filipino religious tradition of sharing, waiting, and preparing

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The dawn of a new day is a fitting image of Mary’s role in the salvation of mankind. The “interplay of light and darkness” puts forward the true meaning of Advent, the joyful and hopeful anticipation of the coming of the Light that will dispel the darkness in the world. As Jesuit priest, Fr. Francisco Mallari puts it, “One midnight in December, the Son of God [came] and lighted up the whole world.” Masses celebrated at dawn for the Blessed Virgin Mary are called Rorate Masses. According to Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, this is where the Misa de Aguinaldo takes its origin.

Through a circular released last December 11, Thursday, Caceres Archbishop Rolando Tria Tirona addressed his Clergy, religious, and lay faithful regarding the “Liturgical Guidelines for Aguinaldo Masses.” The circular stated that “the Misa de Aguinaldo must be observed in the Archdiocese because it is a great source of spiritual nourishment to the faithful.”

There is no celebration of Christmas that is as vibrant and joyful as the way Filipinos give honor, emphasis, and meaning to the birth of Jesus Christ. Being one of the predominantly Catholic countries in Asia and a naturally happy people, Filipinos have created and preserved many traditions in relation to Christmas. One of these is the Misa de Aguinaldo, a votive mass in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent.

Celebrating the Misa de Aguinaldo

Caceres Church historian Fr. Rex Andrew Alarcon defines the Misa de Aguinaldo as “a privileged votive mass, i.e., a mass that does not correspond to the liturgical calendar but has a special intention.” He distinguishes it from other masses as having “a festive mood, [wherein] the Gloria is sung.” Being celebrated “at dawn before daybreak,” it is almost always “attended by a large number of people.”

“The spirit of the Mass,” according to Alarcon, “is that of [joyful] anticipation for Christmas, like Mary, expecting the birth of her Son, Jesus.” He adds, “The celebration of Misas de Aguinaldo prepare the faithful, with Mary, the expectant Mother, to enter into the mystery of the birth of the Son of God into the world – a very important historical event that even secular historians took notice of.”

Observed for nine consecutive days prior to the celebration of the birth of Christ, the Misa de Aguinaldo (in Filipino, Simbang Gabi) must be celebrated at dawn, from December 16-24, between four o’clock and five o’clock in the morning. If it is to be observed in the evening, its celebration must be authorized by the Archbishop and must bear a “pastoral necessity,” meaning “it should be motivated by genuine pastoral care for the spiritual benefit of the faithful.” Anticipated Misas de Aguinaldo shall begin on the evening of December 15 and end on the evening of December 23.

The Naga Metropolitan Cathedral St. John the Evangelist Parish and the San Francisco Parish (both in downtown Naga City) are two of the Parishes in the Archdiocese known to have evening Misas de Aguinaldo, the former at nine o’clock in the evening while the latter at an hour earlier. The Naga City People’s Mall (Public Market) is the only “mall” wherein the Misa de Aguinaldo is celebrated at seven o’clock in the evening.

The vestments used during the eucharistic celebration are white in color. If the Misa de Aguinaldo falls on the evening of a Saturday and a Sunday, the liturgy must be that of a Sunday. There will be no celebration of any anticipated mass for a weekday Misa de Aguinaldo. However, during weekdays, the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Advent (Rorate Coeli desuper) shall be observed during the mass.

Since the mass is celebrated in honor of Mary, Tirona exhorted “to honor the image [of Mary] at the Belen with solemn incensation and singing of [a] Marian Hymn, preferably Alma Redemptoris Mater or Salve Regina.”

The Season in Years

Introduced to Filipinos by the Spaniards, this well-kept tradition, as aforementioned, aims to spiritually prepare the faithful for the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift to mankind. By way of sacrifice and mortification, observing the Misas de Aguinaldo is the faithful’s gift to God in return. Aguinaldo, which means gift, connotes these two explanations very well.

Although details of the first Misa de Aguinaldo in the Philippines is still unknown, Alarcon shares that the first documented Misa de Aguinaldo was in 1668, according to Fr. Francisco Ignacio Alcina in his book, Historia de las Islas e Indias de Bisayas. Almost a century later, in 1763, Fr. Pedro Murillo Velarde mentioned in his Cursus Iuris Canonici Hispanici et Indici that the Filipinos still observe the Misas de Aguinaldo. Alarcon further related that this continued up to the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Fr. Vicente Salazar, Fr. Benito Corominas, and Fr. Serapio Tamayo.

In 1682, when Archbishop Felipe Pardo was the prelate of Manila, the celebration of the Misas de Aguinaldo stopped. It resumed again seven years later when the prelate died.

Nearly three centuries after, on March 24, 1961, the observation of the Misas de Aguinaldo became a formal liturgical celebration in the Philippines. The Vatican approved the petition in 1953 for an extension of five years. In other countries, where the Misas de Aguinaldo began, such as in Spain (particularly in Seville and Granada) and in Mexico, “the practice disappeared as the privilege was withdrawn.”

Alarcon stated that in the Philippines, the reasons for continuing the celebration of the Misas de Aguinaldo were “the perseverance of the natives in the faith and for the preservation of Religion in this part of the world; certainly for a very weighty reason – the advancement of Religion.” Since then, the Misas de Aguinaldo has become a very popular and meaningful tradition, distinct to Filipinos and well-kept during years of celebration of Christmas.

But unlike the norm in Hispanic countries, priests during the Spanish colonial era introduced to the Filipinos the celebration of the Misas de Aguinaldo at dawn. Originally, this was a trade-off for those who work in the fields before sunrise. Masses were celebrated in the evening and people then, despite exhaustion, would attend. Noticing this, the priests moved the celebration of the mass to early morning so the farmers can rest during the night and work before sunrise.

The people offered the priests rice, fruits, and vegetables during mass. Hence, what is now a popular gathering after the eucharistic celebration originated from the practice that the priests generously shared these with the people after the mass. These offerings would become their heavy meal before working in the fields.

Today, outside the Church awaits stalls of iconic Christmas delicacies: puto bumbong, bibingka, suman, hot chocolate, salabat, and arroz caldo. People enjoy the fellowship after the mass, unknown to them that it all started with the values of sharing, hospitality, and of making sure that the rice-based foods then would supply the energy needed by the farmers who would work the entire day. Indeed, the Misas de Aguinaldo is a tradition to keep, a very meaningful way of mixing prayer and action, liturgy and social action.

In closing, Tirona, in his circular, exhorted, “Through the unique Filipino Catholic tradition Misa de Aguinaldo, may the faith and devotion to Mary, the Mother of God and Ina of all Bikolanos, inspire us to receive in our hearts and home God’s priceless ‘Aguinaldo’ in the person of Jesus Christ.” (Natalie Quimlat)