Hundreds of people listen to the celebration of the Eucharist outside St. Joseph Parish Church in Las Pinas City, in Manila during the first pre-dawn Mass on Dec. 16. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
As early as three o'clock in the morning Filipino Catholics flocked to churches around the country to attend the traditional Misa de gallo (Mass of the rooster), or predawn Masses, that usher in Christmas in the Philippines.
Spanish friars introduced the dawn Mass in the Philippines in the 17th century.
Pope Sixtus V allowed the celebration of the Mass before sunrise because it used to be the harvest season in the Philippines, and farmers needed to be in the fields immediately after the celebration.
During the nine-day celebration, which starts Dec. 16, Filipinos adorn their homes with star-shaped lanterns called parols, which were believed to help parishioners before electricity was invented make their way to church in the early morning.
Getting out of bed early in the morning is a struggle, but many Filipino Catholics look at it as a "simple sacrifice" to offer the Lord in exchange for blessings.
Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, chairman of the Episcopal Commission on the Laity of the bishops' conference, said the tradition helps strengthen the faith of Filipinos, which is known all over the world.
"Let us go to church, not only because our friends are there, but also to give thanks to the Lord and listen to His word," said Bishop Pabillo.
A woman sells a traditional Christmas delicacy outside a Catholic church in Las Pinas City, in Manila on the first day of the nine-day pre-dawn Masses on Dec. 16. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
'Work for mercy, justice'
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila said the nine mornings before Christmas "symbolize the nine months that Mary carried Jesus in her womb ... nine months of Mary's exciting sensation for the coming of the Son of God."
The prelate urged Catholics "to join Mary" in welcoming the Lord and become "witnesses" and to testify his being Christ "by doing what He did."
"Let us do acts of mercy and justice. Let us show solidarity to the poor and give hope to people," said Cardinal Tagle.
In an apparent reference to church opposition to the proposed revival of the death penalty, the prelate said Filipinos should show "mercy and compassion" by "forgiving sinners and by giving them a chance.”
"Let us show the world that there is still justice, that we still respect human rights, and the right to life, that all human beings matter," said Cardinal Tagle.
Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao also expressed hope that this year's celebration of Christmas will give life to the church's call for mercy.
The bishop urged Catholics to do "concrete works of mercy" by going out to the poor, especially the victims of violence and injustice.
"I hope that we will not only do it on Christmas, because Christmas is every day. The call to follow Jesus does not only happen on Christmas, but every day of our lives," he said.
'Aspiration for peace'
A Franciscan priest called on Filipinos to find the true meaning of Christmas in working and aspiring for peace amid the killings attributed to the government's war against drugs.
"Our deepest aspiration as humans is for things money can't buy," said Father Robert Reyes, known as the "running priest" for his penchant to run in protest against various issues.
"Our deepest aspiration during this period is what we do deeply need now, peace," said the priest who celebrated the first of the nine-day Masses at a monument honoring the peaceful 1986 people power revolution.
Father Reyes said the killing of suspected drug users and dealers "put to shame the very fiber of our Christian nation, a nation that professes faith to life-promoting God."
Some 3,671 deaths in the government anti-narcotics war have been described as "unexplained death incidents" while 2,886 killings are tagged as "deaths under investigation."
In his homily, Father Reyes also spoke against the proposed revival of the death penalty, saying that the "value of life cannot be subject to legal dispute."