When we think of God, what usually comes into our mind is a stern disciplinarian up above the skies who looks at us with piercing eyes. The Santo Niño gives us another image of God. We have a child who is smiling at us. This captivating smile of the image speaks about our God who always looks at us with love and mercy in spite of our weaknesses.
The smiling feature of the Holy Child, however, did not occur until the time of the Counter Reformation. It was not common for images of the divine to be smiling because their purpose was to bring the viewers to the other world. However, in the age of the Counter Reformation, Sacred Art broadened its purpose. Sacred Art in this age adopted a propagandist stance in which it served as a means of extending and stimulating the public’s faith in the church. Artworks in this era aimed to win people back to the faith were sensuous and more accessible to the average churchgoer. This kind of philosophy deeply influenced the smiling feature of the image of the Santo Niño.
More than its practical purpose, the smiling feature of the Santo Niño is rooted in the identity of God as eternally loving and merciful. (Luke 6:36) Our all powerful God who became a child out of love desires to have a loving relationship with us. God desires to have a loving relationship with us not because of our merits and the good things we have done. As St Paul writes, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Rather, our God who desires to be close to us because our God is a God who is love. (1 John 4:16)
This Smiling God in the image of the Santo Niño conveys a message that it is alright to return to God in spite of the mistakes that we have done. Our God is a Prodigal Father who celebrates a feast on the return of his lost children. A Smiling God is a God who reminds us that there is nothing to be afraid for he says, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) This is a great reason for all of us to be joyful in the midst of life’s difficulties and challenges. We have a God who eternally loves and shows mercy to us.