WITH OPEN HANDS AND GENTLE HEART
FEAST OF THE SANTO NINO
January 18, 2009
Readings: Is 9:1-6 / Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-18 / Mk 10:13-16
Christmas really does not end in the Philippines until after today’s feast. While the rest of the Christian Catholic world celebrates the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Philippines makes one last pitch to celebrate Christmas style … with all the pageantry, revelry, and religiosity that are part and parcel of every “fiesta” celebration all over the country.
Today, thousands of statues of the Santo Nino, big or small, red or green, in various shapes, poses, and sizes, will be blessed or brought to the street celebrations, the height of which is seen either in Cebu or in Tondo, in Manila, and many other towns and cities in the country.
The Filipino celebrates the feast of the Christ-child with both passion and panache, with tenderness and trust, and with awe-filled abandon, and utter attachment to the figure of Christ, albeit presented in the lowliness of a helpless child.
It is easy to lose oneself in wanton abandon and the spirit of helplessness. It is easy to wax helpless and hopeless, in the face of such a pervading spirit of dependence that the image of a helpless little child can lead people to.
But make no mistake about it. Today’s feast does not talk about helplessness and hopelessness. Today’s feast does not wax romantic over pious sentimentalisms attached to the image of a child who is coddled by overzealous and overenthusiastic supporters, like hordes of fans who root blindly for their favorite actor or actress, or showbiz personality.
It would do us all good to take a look at the original context in which the devotion was born. It had to do, not with helplessness, but with a firm resolve, and a resolute drive. This image of the Christ-child, first and foremost, was a survivor. It came out, unscathed, from a fire that gutted the place where it was first placed. Legend and popular belief have it, that, after repeated attempts to transfer the image some place else, specifically Manila, the image somewhat unexplainably, would always be found exactly in the same place where it originally was, or something turned up as to prevent its eventual transfer.
But the Word of God that we just heard earlier does not have to do with legends. But legend or not, today’s readings do have something for us to learn. And the lesson has to do with precisely this utter resolve on God’s part to bring light to “a people who walked in darkness.” The first reading, that we heard in the just ended Christmas season, speaks of the reason and grounding for this celebration connected with the miraculous image of the Christ-child … “for a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.”
Legends are stuff of mortals like us. The legends attached to the image of the Christ-child, whether credible or not, all really have to do, not with God, but with us. Legends that we hold on to are all about us, not God. Legends are stories that our collective unconscious and collective consciousness weave, not for God’s sake, but for our own sake.
And whilst legends are precious and valuable to keep our commitment and devotion to the Santo Nino going, ultimately, it is not legends that we use to ground our faith and loving attachment to the Santo Nino, but the Good News that all this is all about.
The Good News is not a legend. It is historical … that God’s Son became man like us, one with us, like unto us in all things but sin. And there was a time the Son of God was a little boy, who “grew in age and wisdom.” This child, of whom Isaiah speaks so glowingly, is not one who is utterly helpless, but one who is called “wonder counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”
Legends are the stuff out of which myths are made. Good News is the stuff out of which devotion and commitments are made of.
It is unfortunate that a great deal of the revelry and fun associated with the Santo Nino, has to do, more with legend, rather than good news.
But this is precisely the reason that gathers us together at Mass today. We have come to revel in the good news, to be reminded of what, ultimately, will make our celebration grounded in reality, and not just shallow revelry and questionable religiosity. We have come with a task to do, and not just a story to tell one another. We have come, not just to dance in step with others, but to deal with “the hope that belongs to his call” (2nd reading).
All this, the Opening Prayer of today’s liturgy, makes clear. The language it uses, the petitions it raises, and the dreams it expresses, all have to do with tasks that we need to do. They are all adult tasks that even so called weak and helpless children are all called to do: learn from Christ the Child’s example … (he grew in age and in wisdom); embrace God’s will in all things … (he went about doing his Father’s business); hold fast to the dignity of all … (let the children come to me, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these); and serve others with open hands and gentle heart.