Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Overheard During Simbang Gabi

"Simbang Gabi" is a beautiful Filipino Christmas tradition.  It is a novena made up of nine dawn masses from the 16th to the 24th of December.  As our parish priest noted, some people who do not go to mass for the rest of the year make their only  appearance at Church for these "misa de gallo" or "Simbang Gabi".  He said it had  magnetic powers he could not fathom.  Every year I have observed it drawing people from all walks of life, energizing people to get up really early and packing the church with so much anticipation.

But alas, it is hard to quiet down the Simbang Gabi crowd.  Teenagers show off their cellphones to one another.  Lovers cuddle due to the cold December mornings.  Little children run all over the place.  Vendors selling taho, rice cakes, and all sorts of food roam the parish grounds.

In an attempt to lessen the noise level and maintain the solemnity of the mass, our parish council flashed an announcement on the projector screen this morning, in Tagalog.  It said something to this effect:

"Pakiusap, tayo po ay magbigay-galang sa Banal na Eukaristiya.  
Atin pong iwasan ang magkwentuhan sa loob ng simbahan at 
ilagay po natin ang ating mga cellphone sa silent mode."

The minute the announcement was flashed on the screen, I overheard a row of teenagers sitting not far away from me saying loudly to one another:

"Ano raw?
Ano yung Eukaristiya?"

It was a few minutes before mass started and I could not believe my ears.  All along I thought that they were noisy during Simbang Gabi because they did not care what was going on at the altar, Who was being offered, and what the significance of the Sacrifice was.  It dawned on me that it was possible that they did not know.

That was a totally different problem, and I informed our parish priest about it.  He could only shake his head.  He said, "Imposibleng hindi nila alam iyon".  He has his job cut out for him, all right.

In addition, during the recitation of the Apostle's Creed, I heard someone saying, 

"Nang may ikalawang araw ay nabuhay mag-uli"

In English, this meant, "On the SECOND day he rose again"...

It was quite interesting.  Either her Tagalog was rusty, or something else was.  

The choir put up a commendable effort in singing so bright and early.  The people hardly joined them, due probably to lack of sleep.  Or so I thought.  Until...

While I was going back to my seat after receiving Communion, the choir sang "Christmas in Our Hearts" by Jose Mari Chan. It was a song I hardly thought would be appropriate for mass, but one well loved by Filipinos.

So much so that I heard the whole church singing along, like a public karaoke session, belting out at the top of their lungs,

"Let's sing Meri Krismas, and a happy holiday (sic)
This season may we never forget the love we have for Jesus
Let Him be the one to guide us as another New year starts
And may the Spirit of Christmas be always in our hearts!"

I looked up, at Jesus on the Cross, and felt a smile growing in my heart.  For all our flaws, Filipinos do love Jesus, and we love to sing.  Who was I to judge people's faith for their mistakes, when, of all races,  Filipinos truly have Christmas in our hearts?  I was just sharing with a balikbayan friend last night that she had been to the US and Canada, and there was no "spirit of Christmas" until December 24, whereas here we started putting up lanterns and lights as early as September.  I had spent Christmas in Sydney and it was really different. 

In our parish, they served salabat (fresh ginger tea), coffee, pan de sal, and lomi after the mass.  The world may be having a financial crisis, but for the Filipinos, Christmas will always be celebrated in our hearts.

Maligayang Pasko po sa inyong lahat!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Advent Recollection Reflections

Trust Ella to turn a blessing into a struggle. Just a year and a half ago, I was praying for God to lead me to a workplace where I could serve Him with my skills and talents, and which provided a Christian setting so I would not have too much difficulty adjusting after a year and a half of full-time mission work.

God's answer, as I have shared before, was two-fold. He said, "Do not worry, I will not bring you back to the world." I was relieved, for I knew that in a corporate setting I could lose myself again and become what I had fought tooth and nail against, which was to be a corporate (law firm) slave. "You will know when the job is from me", the Lord added during my discernment period. I held on to His promise and so I gave up some offers that did not sit well with me, and waited.

To make a long story short I was led to CD Asia, my present company. I celebrated my first year as a full-time employee last November. It was time to evaluate myself. I saw where I needed to grow and pushed myself to do better on my second year.

I started preparing for my 2009 department plans in September, thinking it would ease my load for December, the scheduled time for presenting the plans to the Board. I wanted perfect plans gathered from perfect data with guaranteed perfect results.

Given all that so-called preparation, I still found myself cramming, and requiring my staff to work doubly hard, by the first week of December. I also had a good problem - the provincial employees were flown to Manila for the first time and I, as one of the proponents of that move, had to come up with a proper Training Program for them to make it worth their while.

In short, for this past week, I had department evaluation, report preparation, Board presentation, and staff instruction. Include one morning of Simbang Gabi sponsored by our zone in the parish, endless Christmas parties, gifts to wrap, humongous traffic, outreach programs, family and friends to think about, and the result is exhaustion. I lost my voice, felt hunger like I had never had before (no time to eat), ignored text messages, had no online presence, and prayed for the grace to survive the week.

I took some measures to ensure my physical and spiritual health. I tried to keep my regular prayer time. I kept my RDL appointments with my SD. I drank 1000mg of Vitamin C. And I slept every moment I could, which included those precious minutes while stuck in traffic in a taxi, no matter how dangerous that was. Sadly, I could not keep my gym schedule, so guess what's definitely in my new year's resolutions list - a reconciliation with my personal trainer!

This morning, I had to wrap gifts for some friends I would be seeing, and was late for work (as usual). As I left our house hurriedly to hail a taxi, I almost slipped. It was a very minor misstep, and I did not lose my balance at all, but it was enough for me to hear a voice telling me, "Slow down, Ella. What's your hurry?"

I paused in the middle of the street and answered back, "Lord, You know me so well. Give me responsibilities and I will deliver. I long to spend more time with You. Show me how to do that amidst my busyness. I am at a loss how!"

Good thing that our office activity for today was an Advent Recollection given by Lampstand Inspirations, a ministry ran by brothers and a sister from the Ligaya ng Panginoon community. My good friend Atty. Bobby Quitain was a speaker. I was pleased to see Mandy, Bogart, and Nerren too.

The Lord immediately used Bobby to capture my attention. He asked us all to slow down. I was struck at the lengths I had gone to supposedly do God's work - in the parish, in the office, in my family, with my friends - and yet I had diminishing time spent in silence, in rest, and in prayer.

It was a Spirit-filled recollection. We were of different religions, but the same God. All of a sudden, our small office pantry was transformed into a foretaste of heaven. People started laughing at the jokes. Then they fidgeted during meditation time. They rejoiced at the games. But point by point, video by video, Scripture verse by Scripture verse, the CD Asians slowly felt God's invitation to claim Heaven in our Hearts. It was a sight to behold.

God asked me to put down my official hat and to just be a daughter to Him. I needed to worship. I needed to sing. I needed to tell Him that I loved Him, that despite my many activities and worries, He was and will always be the Center of my life. That I long for Heaven as an ultimate destination and as a possibility here on earth.

So yes, I am glad that my officemates had a wonderful day of recollection, but I was even happier that I too was able to set aside my many concerns and to experience God in the workplace. I did not realize how much I was thirsting, longing, yearning, and hungering for God until I sang "Our Hearts Will Rise", "Heaven is My Home", "I Give You My Heart", and "How Great is Your Love" again today. What used to be weekly prayer meeting songs became cries from my very tired heart.

Don't get me wrong, I love my job (now), I love my company, and I love my responsibilities. They are blessings and I am grateful for them. Not every company has an official advent recollection, charity event, Sportsfest, teambuilding, and company raffle this year. It's just that they are not enough to satisfy the hole in my heart.

I have to accept this: that, as St. Augustine said, my heart will not rest until it rests on God alone. Since I am still not in heaven where I can see Him face to face, I have to seek the glimpses of heaven here on earth, and to embrace them as they come.

With an Advent like this, Christ's coming has more meaning. He is coming in my heart. :)

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Katinas: A REAL Worship Experience!

I just attended an awesome worship concert at the Araneta Coliseum with my friends from the parish, and I was just floored with the music and the ministry of The Katinas!

I admit that I was not so excited to go.  I had been to previous worship concerts featuring Christian artists and they had seemed to be more focused on their performance rather than on prayer.  

As soon as The Katinas played their first song, I sensed something was wonderfully different with this group.  They were attuned to God, and it showed.  They were in harmony.  They were uber-talented, and it was inspiring to see them sharing their gifts to proclaim God's word.

I was probably the most jaded in our group, but I tried to hide it.  I had prepared myself to just enjoy the night and to participate in some songs.  I had just prayed the rosary with my parents before leaving for the concert, so I was at my most Catholic best and not really in the mood for a noisy concert that pretended to be about praising God.

I was mistaken.  Everything written about The Katinas was true, and they were even better in person.  Those five brothers who were born in Samoa, an island in the South Pacific, showed me once more how powerful music was in spreading the good news.  Almost everyone sang, danced, jumped, praised, and worshiped with them.  Their personal testimonies about how God had moved in their family's life were simply amazing.  Their music was what they called "rock and soul", which was rock with a little  bit (I'd say a lot) of soul.  They could dance, play musical instruments, and sing, sing, sing.

Their versions of popular worship songs got the crowd lifting their hands in praise.  The whole coliseum declared Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and we felt free to run and dance, to jump and clap, to sing and pray.  The quiet moments moved many to tears, as we listened to their short anecdotes about God's marvelous ways.  

What was a bonus was that they brought American Samoa with them, through videos and songs that gave the audience a feel of how their people worshipped God.  I liked their use of technology to maximize the worship experience.  They connected to the crowd instantly.  I had heard foreign artists attempt to say a few Tagalog words (I was a Menudo fan in my childhood), but it was the first time that I heard this said in a worship concert - "Astig kayo!"  When they announced that they were all married already, a chorus of sighs was loudly heard across the coliseum, mostly from the women.

My feet hurt from all that jumping and dancing, my voice cracked after all that screaming and singing, but it was worth it.  I felt one with other Christians.  I felt closer to my brothers and sisters from the parish.  They sang one Christmas song and I closed my eyes to their beautiful version of "Oh Holy Night".

Everyone in our group was happy after the concert, and it renewed our desire to proclaim God's word through music in our parish and in our community.  We felt so blessed to have been given free tickets to this wonderful concert.  It was a real worship experience for all of us.

Katinas, Astig kayo!