20 January 2013

And a Little Child shall Guide Them

Solemnity of the Santo Niño (C) – 20 January 2013

Readings: Is 9:1-6; Ps 97: 1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6; Eph 1:3-6, 15-18; Lk 2:41-52

On the third Sunday of January we get to have a set of readings and prayers different from the rest of the Universal Church. Today the Philippine Church celebrates the Solemnity of Señor Santo Niño. Pit Señor!

The prophet Isaiah prophesies in Is 11,6: "and a little child shall guide them." The feast is symbolic of the founding of the faith in our country. The image being venerated is originally the gift of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (sailing under Spain) to Hara Amihan, wife of Rajah Humabon of Cebu, in 1521 on the occasion of the couples' baptism as Christians. Many of their constituents were baptized with them.

After Magellan was killed in Mactan, the Spanish presence was not felt until 1565 when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi came and defeated Rajah Tupas, ruler of Cebu and nephew of Rajah Humabon. When the battle was over, the image of the Santo Niño was found by a Spanish soldier, relatively unscathed in a burnt-out hut.

Today, the center of this national fiesta is still Cebu, though there are major cities and local churches who celebrate this feast around the same time as well.

What is the significance of celebrating the feast of the Infant Jesus?

1. It is a celebration of the God who is with us and became one of us.

The mood is fittingly expressed in how the Sto. Niño is garbed in many different ways: in traditional robes, contemporary toddler clothes, police uniform, soldier’s uniform, basketball jersey (Barangay Ginebra!), etc. The costumes may be too much for some, but they do deliver the message: Jesus is one of us.

This is the mystery of the incarnation expressed in popular imagination. Jesus went through childhood like the rest of us. And surely suffered fools gladly like not many of us.

There is though an unhealthy tendency in the devotion that runs counter to the very idea of celebrating Christ’s incarnation. There are those who put the image of the Santo Niño in stores and homes mainly for the purpose of bringing in luck. When devotion turns into this, we degrade Christ and turn him into an idol, a lucky charm. We rank Him alongside the “laughing Buddha”, the jade frog with the coin in its mouth, and the golden cat with its perpetually waving right arm. This is not true devotion, this is idolatry and sacrilege.

As an aside, the image of the Santo Niño was recovered in a burnt hut, along with other wooden idols. The image was quickly put in a proper place of honor. Later a church was built on the site where it was found. Since then festivals around the country honoring the Santo Niño were celebrated to commemorate the rediscovery of the image and the reestablishment of the true faith.

2. It is a celebration of the God who invites us to grow with Him and in Him.

Lk 2,52 (in the Gospel this Sunday) says: “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Of course, the child Jesus grew into adulthood. Last Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of His Baptism. He was baptized when he was around 30 years old.

We too are called to mature in faith. The image of the Christ Child, given as a gift to the newly baptized Hara Amihan, renamed Juana, is symbolic as well of the infant faith of our people. How have we grown as a Christian people since then?

Let us take time to identify certain cultural traits that stunt our growth in the faith:

a. Nominal Catholicism. A great number of our people are Catholics in name only. However, not much attention is given to formation in the faith after baptism.

b. Folk Catholicism. Even now, non-Christian beliefs on the supernatural get mixed with the true faith. However, a contemporary – and more insidious – updating of this tendency is the corrupting influence of New Age beliefs and practices.

c. Cafeteria (or should we say in our case, turo-turo) Catholicism. There are also many who prefer to choose which doctrine or moral teaching to believe and live by, which bible quote suit their mood for the day. Those that they find difficult or do not conform to their way of life are discarded in favor of more “convenient ways” of being Catholic, or so they think.

d. Split-level Christianity. The tendency to compartmentalize worship and practice, devotion and morals, in my opinion, is the biggest obstacle to our maturing in faith.

As a child naturally grows to maturity, so God too constantly invites us to grow from our simple faith as a child to a faith that seeks favors to get by the realities of life, then to a faith that puts complete trust in His love, and finally to a faith that is ready to offer oneself and everything one owns in doing God’s will, in imitation of Christ who is one with the Father.

3. It is a celebration of the God who identifies with the little ones.

I remember a story told by a parish priest during Christmas in 2006, right after typhoon Reming devastated Albay. He said he was walking along his parish patio when two brothers, both of grade school age, approached him. He could see they were arguing in hushed tones as to who should talk with him. He thought they would be inquiring whether there are still any relief goods left. The older one finally came up to him and said they would like to make a donation. Then he promptly produced a small plastic bag filled with coins. It was their savings the whole year. He said their parents told them to save so they could buy gifts for Christmas. Lately their parents also told them about the many people who were affected by the typhoon. So they decided to help in their own way.

The Santo Niño embodies the best traits of children: their goodness, trust and humility, their capacity and thirst for learning, their potential for greatness. The Christ Child leads us to rediscover our childlike trust in God, our faith in the goodness of humanity and in our capacity to change for the better.

The Santo Niño also reminds us to be kind to the little ones, and to come to their defense when needed. The little ones are not only the children. They are the last, the least and the lost. Mt 25,40 says: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

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