Santo Niño de Cebu and the Filipino Faith

Photo: Arjoy Ceniza

As the Philippine Church prepares herself for the celebration of five hundred years of Christianity, it is but fitting at this time to reflect on the relationship between the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu and the faith of the Filipinos. Benedict XVI remarked in his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, “There is a need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ.” For us Filipinos, this is a call for us to intensify the call of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) towards maturity of faith among Filipino Catholics. This greatly involves looking back to the beginning of our “journey of faith” as a Christian country and as PCP II believes, there is a need for Church teachings to take root into the soil of our Filipino being so that  we may truly believe and love as Filipinos.

This article attempts to show that the Santo Niño de Cebu is an image that holds great significance in our journey of faith and in the expression of our faith and love as Filipinos.

Santo Niño de Cebu and the Dawn of Faith

The arrival of the image of Santo Niño in 1521 is intimately connected with the birth of Christianity in the Philippines. Through the image of the Holy Child, our forbears were introduced to the God of Christianity who became a child because of His immense love for us. His beauty and majesty in the image of the Holy Child moved the heart of the queen of Cebu to embrace Christianity. As a translation of Pigafetta’s chronicle says,  “She was shown an image of our Lady, a very beautiful wooden Child Jesus, and a Cross. Thereupon, she was overcome with contrition and asked for baptism amid her tears…(later)…she asked to give her the little Child Jesus to keep in place of her idols and she went away.” From this “first spiritual miracle of the Holy Infant,” the seed of devotion that was planted continued to spread into the soil of the hearts and minds of every Filipino even after the Spaniards left the islands. This was attested by the fact that when the Spaniards came back to our islands, one of the soldiers of Legazpi discovered the Santo Niño in good condition in a box. The image was dressed in native style and with a native necklace with a small cross attached. Although the original clothes and the cross on the tip of the globe were missing, the red velvet Flemish bonnet was still intact. In a letter to King Philip II, Legazpi wrote that the image was well kept in that house there were many flowers before the image when they found it. Later on this site, a church was built which would become the “Mother of all churches in the Philippines”- the Basilica del Santo Niño de Cebu. Through the centuries, Filipinos from all walks of life continue to kiss the image, sing and dance their faith to God who was made flesh as a child in the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu.

Santo Niño de Cebu and the Filipino Way of Professing the Faith

Each culture and people has its own way of professing their faith. This is because Christ is present in every place and culture as it is true that everything is created through Him. (Jn 1:1) In other words, contextual realities such as the people, their culture, religion, history and struggle do not just serve as the background in doing theology. Rather, “contextual realities are considered resources of theology together with the Christian sources of Scripture and Tradition.” In our context as Filipinos, our image of the Santo Niño, the stories that we have about the image and the rituals and dances that we have before the image are true expressions of our faith as Filipinos.

The Power of the Image of the Santo Niño de Cebu

The image of the Santo Niño plays a vital role in the expression of the faith of the Filipinos. Unlike Westerners who employ a predominantly rational approach to God, Easterners, employ the experiential and the holistic approach. Through the image of Santo Niño, Filipinos express what they believe and feel and move them forward to dimensions of consciousness not directly accessible to discursive thought. This image allows the Filipino devotees to experience the presence of divine reality which surpasses articulation. This experience with the divine is supported by the many inexplicable cures and miraculous favors that have been gained by the people through the image of Santo Niño. When  one is aware of this reason, it would not be a surprise for one to witness devotees cuing from morning till evening just to be able to touch and even kiss the image of the Holy Child. Scriptures also attest that material objects can also become channels of God’s grace. Among these is the experience of the woman with the hemorrhage who exerted effort just to touch the hem of the cloak of Jesus: “If I could only touch the fringe of his cloak, I know that I shall be healed.” (Lk 8:43-48) It is not necessarily true that devotees adore the image of Santo Niño for its own sake. This can be seen in the attitude of the devotees towards the images of Santo Niño that they also have in the altars of their homes and the images of Santo Niño that depict the profession of the caretaker of the image. They do not care much of the physical appearance of the image more to the God represented in the image. Devotees are drawn to the Santo Niño because for them this image makes sense in revealing who God really is. The God who became a child in the image of the Sto. Nino is the real object of the devotion. The Church does not teach that the image of Sto. Nino contains power. Nevertheless, this image is only a representation of the source of power who is no other than God.

Stories of Miracles of the Santo Niño de Cebu

There are many myths and miracle stories about the image of Santo Niño de Cebu. Even before the discovery of Legazpi’s soldiers, the image had already been associated with many myths and miracles. These stories concern about health restored after illness, easy delivery in childbirth, defense against an impending attack by invaders, protection from fire and disease, rain and a good harvest after a long drought. These stories may appear unimportant to a mind trained in precision and logic. But, for the Asian mind particularly Filipinos, these myths and miracle stories are resources from which the content of faith and the meaning of human existence can be vividly expressed. The Asian Bishops affirm this truth in these words, : “Mythology expresses the content of faith, and the meaning of  human existence and the Transcendent in a verbal and descriptive way, in the form of a narrative that is often dramatic, tangible and vivid.” Reading and listening to these stories of the Santo Niño may at times funny and unbelievable. Yet, they seriously express the people’s faith that the Santo Niño is their Great Benefactor and Protector. This faith brings us back to the Jesus of the gospels who feed his hungry flock in the multiplication of loaves and the Jesus who wants his people to be saved.

Sinulog and other Rituals with the Santo Niño de Cebu

The Filipino expression of faith through the devotion to the Santo Niño is also shown in sinulog (ritual dance) and other rituals such as the weekly novena, pamisa (mass offerings), pagdagkut ug kandila (lighting of candles), hubo (dressing and undressing of the Santo Niño) and the religious processions. Through these rituals, devotees experience and communicate the Sacred beyond words and propositions. In other words, the Filipinos consider dancing and these rituals as expressions of prayer. These bodily prayers are performed to express praise and thanksgiving for the many favors received. These are not something new for Filipinos. It is because historians believe that even before the Spaniards came, our forbears already danced and performed rituals to the deities. The pioneering missionaries only changed the reason behind such performance from worshiping the anitos to the proclamation of God’s lordship over all creation. Knowing the ritual dancing and other rituals, we are reminded of the Jews in the Scriptures who also danced and sing in praise of God. 2 Samuel 6:14 mentions the Jews in huge procession singing and dancing with David, the anointed of God. Furthermore, it makes us at peace to dance our prayers and perform our rituals knowing that Liturgy acknowledges the possibility of integrating in the official worship anything in the people’s way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error.

Towards our Five Hundredth

The Santo Niño de Cebu is truly a Filipino expression of our Christian faith. It is an image which had been a witness to the start of our forbears’ journey of faith and an image through which we articulate our faith in ways that are beyond words and propositions. It is true that there are things that need to be purified in the practice of these devotions which are contrary to the teachings of our faith. Let these be seen not as things that would lessen our devotion to the Santo Niño. Rather, let these be seen to be a reminder that we are still in the journey towards maturity of our faith. Thus, let these weaknesses be opportunities for church leaders and the faithful to reflect more our identity as Filipinos and our Filipino way of professing the Christian faith. By doing this through the guidance of our patron and King, Santo Niño, we will have a more mature faith and a faith that we can call truly Filipino as we approach our five hundred years as a Christian nation.

Viva Pit Senyor!

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