I MUST confess that I often have mixed feelings about the devotion to the Santo Niño. Now please don’t get me wrong. I will defend it as best as I can. But to be honest, there are times that I feel embarrassed watching the devotion’s supposed-to-be cultural or artistic expressions that seem often rooted in showbiz and tourism-related commerce rather than in authentic prayer or worship. That’s not to say that I have become a self-appointed judge or an expert on the cultural expressions of our devotions. That’s just to say that, to my mind, there are impurities in our devotions, particularly to the Santo Niño, that even an ordinary Catholic, in the simplicity of his faith, must be able to distinguish and sift from its genuine elements.
First, true devotion to the Santo Niño is definitely not in the same league as our devotion to saints. In our devotion to a saint, for example, we mainly enlist a fellow believer and disciple who is in heaven to intercede for us, to pray for us in our needs. On the other hand, our devotion to the Santo Niño is essentially aimed at praise and worship of him who, though truly human, is also truly God. It is therefore a grave mistake to treat the devotion as just one of the many we cultivate towards saints. The Child Jesus, as one Catholic school’s name rightly declares, is “divine” to whom worship, not simply veneration, is due.
Two, focusing on the Child Jesus doesn’t mean the devotion’s significance is chronological or biological. A story is told of a Pinoy non-Catholic, baffled by the devotion, asking a Catholic friend why after celebrating the feast of the very adult Jesus Nazareno every ninth of January, Filipino Catholics revert to the childhood of Jesus in the Santo Niño. “How could you go,” he asked, “from the adult Jesus backward to the child Jesus without being downright silly?” Now the Pinoy Catholic was fast on his feet, “’Igan (friend),” he paused. “You have to remember that Jesus is both God and man. As God he certainly can do anything. In other words, he can be both a child and grown man just so he could be with his people. Isn’t that the language of love?” This answer might contain some profound theology. But let’s not miss the point: The Child Jesus and Jesus Nazareno is one and the same person. The devotion to the Santo Niño’s significance is not chronological but spiritual.
Speaking of spiritual significance, we ask: Who is the Santo Niño for us?
One, he is Jesus himself, the “light of the world” (Jn 9:5). Isaiah foretold his coming in no uncertain terms. “The people who walked in the darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 9:1). Why so? Isaiah continues: “For a child is born for us, a son is given us. Upon his shoulder dominion rests” (Is 9:5). I have a sister who would tell me that even if she arrives home tired and weary from work, her face always lights up whenever she sees her little boy coming to meet her. Meeting Jesus the Santo Niño is infinitely different because this child, again in the words of Isaiah, is meeting the “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5). The joy born of this meeting is infinitely different (in the sense of ‘better’) too.
Two, the Child Jesus is God who has shared with us completely our own humanity. The “God-Hero” and “Prince of Peace” had become a “child with Mary his mother” being visited by shepherds and representatives of humankind, the Magi (Mt 2:11-21). The clear and simple message of the childhood of Jesus is the humility of God that humans like us need to learn again and likewise put into practice. Whenever the president or a high government official visits victims of calamities in the country, it touches many. But they do not cease to be high government officials. The president eventually returns to Malacañang and to comfortable life; so do other government officials. When Jesus became a human being, as is seen in the Santo Niño, he completely took upon himself our human condition without returning to the comfort and glory of heaven even when things became difficult and tough except after his mission was accomplished. He has truly become the ‘Emmanuel’, that is to say, “God-with-us” (Mt 1:23). Because the Child Jesus is truly man and truly God, it is most appropriate to pray to him. In fact, a growing number of people, including non-Catholics, attest to how the Santo Niño hears and answers their prayers. Stories about this, in matters big and small, abound. And it’s no wonder because this baby is Jesus Christ himself in whom God blesses us “with every spiritual blessing in the heavens”, such as being “chosen” in Christ “to be holy and blameless in his sight…predestined…through Christ Jesus to be his adopted sons and daughters” (Eph 1:3-5).
Three, the Child Jesus is a powerful gospel statement long before the gospels were written. The statement simply tells us that in heaven the greatest is the child and only in becoming like little children will we be able to enter God’s Kingdom (Mk 10:14-15; 9:36-37; Mt 19:14). Whenever I ask people why Jesus considers children the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, they almost always point to the innocence of children. But this is not quite the teaching of Scriptures. Rather the Scriptures underline the instinctive recognition by children of their dependence on others. We always see children, for instance, together with people they love and depend on: parents, siblings, relatives, friends. Only when a child is lost that that child is alone. Only when we acknowledge our dependence on God and other members of the human family will we begin to understand what heaven is all about. The song that says, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world”, now takes on a new meaning.
Four, Jesus in becoming a small vulnerable child gives us a direct call to protect, defend and care for him in the small, the weak and vulnerable among us. Worth mentioning are the defenseless, ‘poorest of the poor’ children in the womb and in abusive homes as well as the sick and the elderly who can no longer give nor be of use to society. In his Midnight Mass homily on December 24, 2006 the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, brought this point home to all Catholics. The Baby Jesus is the face of everyone who is completely under our power, utterly dependent on us to not only survive but to also grow in humanity: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the persecuted, the oppressed. Devotion to the Child Jesus has one test: taking up the struggle for social justice and the preferential option for the poor.
Finally, it’s undeniable that the Santo Niño is tremendously popular in the Philippines. His image is seen in virtually anywhere, such as in our homes, stores, places of work, business, in cars, hotels, vans, buses, tricycles etc.
But the Santo Niño needs to be in the most important place of our lives—namely, our hearts.