The Feast of the Santo Niño was established to honor Jesus Christ. The Santo Niño is a sacred image which is connected with the very beginning of Christianity in the Philippines. The small statue now in Cebu, the Santo Niño de Cebu, arrived with Magellan and his crew, and it has remained here for over 500 years – an enduring symbol of the presence of the Lord in the Philippines and of the enduring love of the Filipino people for Jesus Christ.
There is more to today’s feast than simply a popular devotion. It has many elements: historical, cultural, religious, and traditional. For example, today is also a celebration in honor of children. One of the reasons why Sto. Niño is so popular in the Philippines is that Filipinos love children. A healthy society celebrates children as a gift of God. Sadly, many societies see children more as an obstacle to happiness and a threat to prosperity. As a result of this distorted thinking, abortion is widespread in the world. Devotion to the Santo Niño – a child, a unique child, an extraordinary child, a divine child – helps counter the evil of abortion, reminding us that the life of every child is precious and sacred.
The Church has determined that the Sto. Niño should be celebrated every year on the third Sunday of January. Special readings have been chosen for the feast so that the word of God can give us a deeper appreciation of the identity and the mission of the Holy Child. This Child was spoken of long ago by the prophet Isaiah. In today’s first reading, he proclaims, “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” It is a prophecy of the Messiah, who came to us as a child in Bethlehem.
At the center of this feast, then, is the extraordinary mystery of the Incarnation: God becoming man. We have been celebrating this throughout the Christmas season. Although Christmas is officially over, today’s feast gives us another opportunity to reflect on this inexhaustible mystery, the unimaginable combination of God and man, a combination of greatness and littleness, of strength and weakness. It could be said that today’s feast is a combination of the two feasts of Christmas and Christ the King.
When the Magi were seeking the Child, they knew he was a king. “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” (Mt 2:2). But when they found him, he was not dressed as a king; he was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” (Lk 2:7). The Sto. Niño image is dressed as a king, reminding us that this humble Child is also God. As a child, he is very approachable and loveable; as God, he is trustworthy and powerful and deserving of our adoration.
Today’s Gospel is the narrative of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, which we also ponder as the fifth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. It is an appropriate passage to ponder today because it reveals Jesus as both son of Mary and Son of God, fully human and fully divine. This episode took place, not when Jesus was a little child, but when he was twelve years old, on the threshold of maturity. It is the only episode which records what he was doing for the thirty years of his hidden life: he was doing perfectly the will of the Father and living in perfect obedience to his parents, Mary and Joseph. Even as a child, Jesus was overcoming the sin of Adam and Eve, reversing their disobedience with his perfect obedience.
It is not always easy to understand the will of God or to accept what obedience to him requires. Sometimes it is confusing; we simply do not understand God’s ways! Whenever another tragedy or hardship occurs, we wonder, “Where is God? Why is he doing this?” When Jesus remained in the temple, Mary and Joseph did not understand why Jesus was missing, or why they had to experience sorrow and anxiety. Mary expressed this to him in her blunt question: “Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
This is the very question that we have: “Lord, why have you done this to me? Why did you allow me to suffer? Where were you when I was looking for you?” Jesus’ response, which is also a question, is an invitation to reflect on what he was really doing. “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” This tells us something about the work of God in the world and gives us a lasting point for our reflection about Jesus Christ, about Sto. Niño. Jesus is the Son of the Father; he is always doing the will of the Father, even when we do not understand it. When we do not know where he is or what he is doing, we can be certain that he is always doing the will of the Father. What we experience as a contradiction must not lead us to doubt his presence or his goodness. He is here among us, doing what he must do to make it possible for us to live with him in perfect obedience, and thus in perfect joy, in union with the Father.
The Philippines has endured much suffering in the past 500 years, but the Sto. Niño has been with us the whole time. As humble children of God, let us adore him, and strive to imitate him in joyful obedience to the will of our heavenly Father.
How do I express and share the joy of the Santo Nino in my life with others? In prayer and action, how do I proclaim that the life of every child is precious and sacred? What would be my inner reactions if I were Mary and Joseph looking for Jesus?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.