December 16 started out as a calm, clear morning yet the minute I got out of bed, still bleary eyed from sleep and opened the bedroom door, a merciless blast of frigid air gleefully caught and slammed me on my naked chest leaving me slight popeyed and breathless, instantly reminding me that I was not in Lianga but somewhere else. Early mornings in Lianga can be chilly but not this bitingly cold.
I was just outside of Metro Manila, on the outskirts of Antipolo City and that early morning was the start of the traditional Simbang Gabi. Originally known as the Misa de Gallo or Rooster's Mass, the series of nine day dawn masses culminating in the Christmas midnight mass on Christmas Eve is an important part of Filipino Yuletide tradition.
I have never been much of a Simbang Gabi devotee and even in Lianga I would still be huddled in bed and deep in the comforting arms of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, totally oblivious to the church bells calling the faithful to church and the insistent noises of the rest of the household hastily preparing and rushing about to answer their call. But this particular morning, the host of the house I was staying in had asked me to join him and his family go to church and it would have been churlish and ungracious of me to refuse his request.
The Antipolo Cathedral is, by day, already an imposing structure befitting one of the most important pilgrimage centers in the country for the Catholic faithful. As a national shrine housing the image of the Lady of Peace and Good Voyage or the Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buen Viaje also known as the Virgin of Antipolo, it inspires awe and intense veneration especially among devotees of the Virgin Mary.
Decked out in Christmas lights and in Yutetide finery, it is a glittering jewel even in the harsh cold of local December mornings. And the crowd of churchgoers was huge and I mean really huge. As we jostled for space outside the cathedral's ornately pillared main entrance (there was no more space to be had inside the packed interior) Kim, my host, and I had a short, intense discussion about the more the usually enthusiastic attendance.
"It's the hard and difficult times," he opined and I agreed with him. In times of economic crisis in this country, the church has always been the sanctuary of the hopes and prayers of the people for more better and kinder times. Many Filipinos believe that by attending all of the nine dawn masses, they would be granted the privilege to ask God and the Virgin Mother for special favors or requests foremost among them would have to be the grace to be able to weather the expected difficult economic times ahead.
After the mass and while jostling through the crowds of people and sidewalk vendors hawking puto bumbong (a sticky rice delicacy steamed in bamboo tubes) and bibingka (rice flour and egg cake), both so much a part of the Simbang Gabi tradition with salabat (hot ginger tea) and tsokolate (thick Spanish cocoa), I had the chance to reflect on the difference between the way the dawn masses are practiced in Lianga and in Luzon.
The truth is there are no major differences. The puto bumbong may not be as well known in my hometown although we have there a variety of other sticky rice concoctions like the budbud or bibingkang kanin which are made of glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaves. Tsokalate is a familiar enough beverage in both locations and is usually made in Lianga from locally grounded native cocoa beans, milk and brown sugar.
The language used in the Mass in Antipolo may be different but the gestures and cadence of the ceremonies had the comforting familiarity of the masses of my childhood. The sense of community and worshiping in solidarity, admittedly transient and temporary in an urban setting, and not as strong in a closely knit community like Lianga, to all intents and purposes, was there
What is more striking are the similarities. There is among the people attending the masses in Antipolo as in the dawn masses I remember in Lianga of Christmases past, that same sense of controlled despair underneath the festive atmosphere, the same longing for answers, for some form of understanding, a common point of reference in a world beset by worries, anxieties and uncertainties.
It is as if by being there in church, every morning, the every worshiper hopes to tap into a universal reservoir of hope, a fountain of energy that replenishes the spirit and enables them to go forth into the world every day renewed and filled with continued optimism for what is, for many, a dark and forbidding future.