Understanding the Devotion to Señor Santo Niño de Cebu

The devotees raise their hands as they sing the Gozos to the Santo Niño de Cebu. Picture: Fr. Rommel Par, OSA

Today we celebrate the feast of the oldest symbol of Christianity in the Philippines – the image of Señor Santo Niño de Cebu. In fact, the image of the Santo Niño is as old as Christianity in the country. It was during the arrival of the Santo Niño in our shores in 1521 brought by Magellan and given as a baptismal gift to Queen Juana of Cebu that Christianity began in our country. That is why next year 2021, the Church in the Philippines will celebrate its 500th Anniversary of Christianization and 500th Anniversary of the Arrival of the Santo Nino. On the feast of the Santo Niño de Cebu, we notice a number of practices done by the devotees which can be different from other devotions in the Church in the Philippines. These practices are close to our hearts because they have their roots in our native religion and Christian evangelization. It is helpful to understand their meaning so that we can also deepen more our devotion to God especially on this feast of the Santo Niño.

One of the things that we can notice is the presence of different kinds of images of the Santo Nino carried by the devotees during mass or processions. Although the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu is dressed in red kingly robes, you can also notice Santo Nino images dressed in different professions such as a doctor, dentist, policeman among others. Jaime Belita interprets this phenomenon as a manifestation of “nearness, intimacy and accessibility of power or the sacred.” Through the image of the Santo Nino, Filipino devotees experience the close presence of the Divine which surpasses articulation. Our God is somebody who is present with us in the image of the Santo Niño.

When you enter the Basilica del Sto. Niño in Cebu, you can also notice a long line of people waiting for their turn to have a few seconds of time to touch, wipe and pray near the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu. The devotees believe that “there is a real presence of the holy in the object.” And this presence of the holy in the object is a holiness that can be transmitted to the person touching it with their hands or their handkerchiefs. Holiness is not something abstract in the Filipino mind. Rather, it is concrete and even transmissible. Things can become sacred by association or by touch of another holy object, place or person.

Aside from the wiping and the touching of images, there is also the famous rhythmic, bodily movements accompanied by the continuous beating of the drums called sinulog. According to Manuel Enriquez de la Calzada, the word sinulog comes from the Visayan word sulog which literally means “water current.” Hence, this dancing imitates the water current that moves forward and backward. Sinulog is a prayer of adoration of the devotees to God in the Santo Nino. Devotees are not just contented in reciting their prayers. Their faith filled devotion enables them to sing and dance their thanksgiving and their petitions.

Together with this ritual dance of the sinulog is the shout of “Pit Señor!” This phrase is an abbreviation of the Cebuano phrase “sangpit kang Senyor” which literally means “I call upon Senor Santo Niño!” The devotion to the Santo Niño is a call to Senor Santo Niño for thanksgiving for the many blessings received and also for assistance for other needs. This call of the devotees expresses their faith that the God who is represented in the image of the Santo Nino is a God who is so near to them that He listens to them.

These are some of the practices that devotees do in their devotion to the Santo Niño. Through these practices, they express their faith to God who became like us in the Child Jesus so that He can be with us – Emmanuel. Aside from our Filipino way of expressing faith, the devotees identify and relate themselves closely with the image of the Santo Niño. It reflects the peoples’ “simplicity, innocence, purity and playfulness.” Although, devotees need to be cautioned not to neglect the hard sayings and commands of the adult Jesus, it is in the Santo Niño where the value of being childlike is celebrated by the devotees. As Jesus said in the gospel, “In truth I tell you, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” In other words, the criterion of the authenticity of our devotion is measured on how the devotees live their life in faith, hope and love. I hope with these notes on the meaning of these practices, our understanding will help us deepen the faith which we have received and translate it in our love and service to others.

Viva Pit Señor!    

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