(Note: Essay was written back in Dec. 2004. Simbang Gabi 2006 pictures are available at my flickr page.
A picture of the St. Joseph’s Parish Church never fails to land in the front pages of several dailies come Simbang Gabi time. It is where the world-famous Bamboo Organ is housed, and it becomes the favorite church of Las Piñeros and non-Las Piñeros alike to attend the traditional Misa de Gallo.
It’s ironic (and embarrassing) how I was not able to set foot to this place to attend Simbang Gabi despite the four years I spent during my adolescent life in the school of which it is the Parish church. It’s a pity how I can take something for granted like this church which is just a stone’s throw away from my school back then. “Nandiyan lang naman ‘yan; it won’t crumble down to dust soon.” I’d tell myself. But who knows. So time passed and I stepped on to college without having attended any Simbang Gabi on this church.
There were several things that hampered me from going to the church in “Bayan” (as what the vicinity of the place is more popularly called) back then, like its distance from our house, and I have to wake up extra early so I won’t get late for the Mass, or maybe it’s just my sheer laziness, and other reasons anchored on spirituality. But that is another story.
“Kawawa ka naman,” my friends chided me. “Hindi ka pa nakakapagsimbang gabi ‘dun.” At long last, I got the chance to attend a Simbang Gabi at the Bamboo Organ Church last December 23 with three of my high school bosom buddies.
One cannot miss the church’s outstanding display of grandeur as one approaches the church located at the heart of Las Piñas Bayan, along the avenue named after Padre Diego Cera, the Augustinian priest who helped build the church and the organ almost two centuries ago. Two century-old acacia trees seem to bear white parols for its fruits, with its long branches extending high and out of the vicinity of the patio and the parking lot for everyone to see. From afar, the cluster of lights is inviting, breathtaking even. They invite people from both ends of the avenue—indeed a modern day version of the guiding star of the Three Kings; it is the giant rendition of the burning bush just in time for the Yuletide Season. And like the star of Bethlehem, the glowing lanterns will lead one to his ultimate place of destination: the church.
The church transforms from a 16th century-old house of worship to a glowing place of visual treat. Its edges are lined with Christmas lights, accentuating the outline of the structure. A giant cross-shaped lantern stands at the apex of the building in replacement of a cross. Its exterior and interior, as well as the patio beside it are adorned with artificial poinsettias, lights and other Christmas tinsels and trinkets. Despite all these embellishments, the place still maintains its solemnity. The roof of the adjacent school is also bedecked with lit lanterns. Staring at the lights gives one a feeling that is as if the star-studded sky was pulled much closer to the earth.
The altar is transferred to the entrance of the church, instead of its usual location inside, transforming the patio and the parking lot as part of the ensemble to accommodate more parokyanos. The occupants of the pews inside who are mostly altar-servers, readers, and some Church-goers get a backstage view of the altar.
The spot where the altar used to be located now serves as the choir’s platform. I had the privilege to listen to the inimitable angelic voices of the famous Las Piñas Boys Choir. Keeping my eyes closed and listening to the divine music of the choir accompanied by the distinct sound of the bamboo organ made me forget about my surroundings and think I am already in heaven.
Banda San Jose plays its pompous music to wake up the people, going around the nearby barangays before the start of the Mass. Loud speakers also blare with Christmas songs, and the Church bells are sounded off as a final reminder that the Mass is about to begin.
Simbang Gabi in this corner of the Philippines cannot be as Pinoy as anywhere else. The Mass in the Church in Bayan is celebrated in Filipino. The lay ministers are dressed in traditional long-sleeved camisa de chino with matching scarf, reminiscent of our heroic Katipuneros. The dancers who put charm and give a different twist to the Mass are wrapped in colorful and matching baro’t saya. Dried straws, like those used in thatched roofing of nipa huts, form a semi-dome right above the altar, giving one a rustic feel of the Mass. One finds a giant Belen the right corner of the patio, just near the entrance of the Church.
The celebration does not end when the priest pronounces his final blessings. Banda San Jose provides another wake up call by performing in the middle of the parking lot. The dismissal is something I also look forward to because by this time I’m already hungry. And several bahay kubos sell a variety of local and Christmas gastronomic treats: lugaw, pansit palabok, puto bumbong, and special bibingka to name some.
It’s a church like no other. Its popularity is not only confined to Las Piñas, as I met devotees who came as far as Alabang, and I even saw some foreigners around, who I assume are tourists of the place.
Like myself, everyone seem to be in a festive mood in consonance with the season. My Christmas hasn’t become any more Christmasy than this. Simbang Gabi at Bayan will definitely be a permanent part of my future Christmases to come.
Have a Merry Christmas!