Social Media Missionaries… that has to be the strangest and most bizarre term I have heard thus far, and had I not heard it myself yesterday, I never would have believed it. But I am getting ahead of the story.
Yesterday, not only marked the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), but also the beginning of a yearly and hallowed tradition in the Philippines of the dawn masses called Simbang Gabi. For the next nine days leading up to Christmas, Filipino Catholics flock to the churches at 4:00am, a sacrifice in every sense of the word. My daughter and I used to serve at the masses while we lived in the Philippines, she as an altar server and me as an usher. My father was a lay minister in another parish, so he was also up and about, actively giving communion, whereas my mother couldn’t be bothered. The belief is that if you complete all nine masses your most fervent wish will come true. Most people start out enthusiastically on the first three days, and surrender somewhere towards the fifth.
For Filipinos living outside of the Philippines, this is one of the Christmas traditions that we miss the most and are unable to find a suitable substitute in any other country. Not only is it an affirmation of the Christ-centered Christmas tradition that anchors the solemnity of the feast, but it is also a rallying of community spirit unlike no other. Families, friends and neighbours will walk together to mass, and in many universities the students will go out of their way to attend regardless of the heavy academic loads.
The depth and importance of this tradition to Filipino Christianity is manifested in the progressive flexibility of the Philippine Catholic Church to adapt to the various demands of modern society. For those families who are unable to make it to the dawn masses due to work, school, or transportation schedule issues, there are anticipated masses in the evenings. In addition, many corporations will also offer eucharistic services within the building at noon. If all else fails, (at least in Metro Manila) one can also find a Simbang Gabi mass at one of the malls.
Filipinos take their Simbang Gabi seriously, and being the inclusive society that we are, the parishes are always coming up with ways and means to involved everyone by hook or by crook. Some will consider this social pressure, others as spiritual blackmail, but you have to give the Pinoys credit for creativity. The latest twist to the modern-day Simbang Gabi comes in the form of live-streaming of the dawn mass on Facebook and YouTube. This took me by surprise when I stumbled upon it, and the idea seemed totally bizarre initially, but considering that I listen to Sunday mass online from Toronto, why not Simbang Gabi from Manila? The internet makes it possible and my silent living room is more solemn than some churches!
The live feed from Filipinos worldwide following the mass was fascinating. You had kababayans joining in from Rome, Singapore, Malaysia, Austria, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, the UK, USA and Canada. At the end of the mass, the priest appealed to the faithful to help spread the word about the online eucharistic services and live-streaming, calling people to become Social Media Missionaries. I have major issues with this term, and the whole concept of using social media as an evangelisation tool, but maybe I am a tad too old-school. After all, I am benefiting from these modern tools and am able to participate vicariously in my beloved Simbang Gabi.