Today, we commemorate the 455th Anniversary of the Kaplag or the Finding of the Image of the Santo Niño. This commemoration is important especially for us today because it reminds us of God’s abiding presence even in the midst of the difficulties that we face. The image of the Santo Niño de Cebu as the oldest symbol of Christianity in our country continues to manifest God’s concrete presence with us for the past five centuries. In fact, next year 2021 will be a big celebration for all of us because we will be celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Arrival of the Image of the Santo Niño in our country and our 500th Anniversary of Christianization.
In this article, I would like to share with you how to pray with the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu using the ancient Christian practice of Lectio Divina. I adapted this approach from Dr. Jem Sullivan who wrote the book The Beauty of Faith. In this book, she pointed out that applying Lectio Divina to sacred and religious images can foster in us a prayerful way of seeing that can be integrated into our daily prayer, faith and life. This prayerful way of seeing is important for us especially at this time when our senses are constantly bombarded with images, sounds and information that it becomes a challenge for us to listen attentively, see meditatively and read prayerfully.
I have divided this article into two parts. The first part is the theological foundation behind our prayer with sacred images like the Santo Niño de Cebu. And the second part will be about the process on praying with the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu using the practice of Lectio Divina.
This article is aimed to foster a greater appreciation of this great gift of the image of Santo Niño de Cebu and more importantly deepen our relationship with God even in this difficult time of our lives. Let us now proceed to our first part.
Why can we pray with the image of the Santo Nino?
Catholic Doctrine on Sacred Images
We can pray with the image of the Santo Niño because of the Incarnation of God in human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. One of the important figures in Church history who defended the icons is the Syrian monk named St. John of Damascus. He argued that just as the invisible God made an image, a picture, an icon of Himself in the person of Jesus through His incarnation, we can also participate in His incarnation by depicting the invisible God with the visible image such as the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu. It is because of the incarnation of God that we have many ways of praying with the image of the Santo Niño. We can dance our prayer through the Sinulog dance. We can also pray through the kissing and wiping of the image of Santo Niño. We also pray by lighting a candle in churches. And we even pray through singing and the waving of our hands when we sing the Gozos of the Santo Niño entitled Bato-balani sa Gugma or the Magnet of Love. It should be noted that we do not pray to the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu. Rather, we pray to God with the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu because the image assists us in our prayer to our God.
Now, that we have presented the first part on the basis of our prayer with the Santo Niño, let us now proceed to talk about the process of lectio divina with the image of the Santo Niño.
Praying with the Image of Señor Santo Niño de Cebu Using the Lectio Divina
Lectio Divina is a spiritual reading of Scripture that attunes the “spiritual senses” to listening to God silently, to reading God’s word meditatively, and to resting in His presence. We adapt this practice on the image of the Santo Niño so that we can acquire a deeper capacity to appreciate the mysteries in the life of Christ as depicted in the image of the Santo Niño. This practice helps to purify our senses as it leads us the viewer to see Christ through the image with the “eyes of faith” and the “ears of our heart.”
This practice of Lectio Divina has four “stages” or “steps.” These steps are lectio or reading, meditatio or meditation, oratio or prayer and contemplatio or contemplation. It is to be noted that these stages of lectio divina should not be taken purely in a linear way but as a series of unfolding circles of prayer and deeper union with God.
Let us now proceed on the process of praying with the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu guided by the practice of lectio divina.
The first step of Lectio Divina is lectio. This is a slow, reverential reading and listening. In this step, we still our mind, eyes and ears in silence to predispose ourselves to read the image as one would read the pages of the Scriptures. Silence enables us to create space for the Santo Niño to speak to us rather than just us speaking to the Santo Niño. Our silence prepares us to approach the Santo Niño not only as another image that we see, but as an image that represents our God.
In this stage, we ask ourselves, “What do we see in the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu?” “Who is it that we see in the image of the Santo Niño?” “What grabs your attention as you look at this image?” As you look at the image, you might immediately be focused on the image of the Child Jesus. Your eyes might also marvel at the sight of a child clothed with kingly vestments. The image has a red cape, a golden crown and a golden scepter. On his left hand, we can see a globe and a cross on top. You might also notice that the image has also a white inner garment. His right hand is raised in the form of a blessing with two upraised fingers. As you look at the face of the Santo Niño, his smiling childlike fare might strike you or his brown complexion. When you look close enough on his face, your attention might be captured by the scar on the right cheek of the Santo Niño. What do we see as we sit silently in front of the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu? What strikes us in the image?
The next step of the lectio divina is meditatio. In this step, we move from the features that we see in the image to the meaning behind the features that struck us. What could be the meaning of the depiction of God as a child? What is the spiritual and theological meaning of the colors of the vestments? What could be the meaning of the features and postures of the Santo Niño? In this step, we see with the “eyes of faith” the mysteries in the life of our Lord Jesus visually expressed before us in the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu.
The Image of the Child Jesus and the Mystery of the Incarnation
The image of God as a child brings us to the meaning of God who became like us in the Incarnation. The Gospel of John articulates this mystery in these words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:1; 14, NAB).” What does it mean to become a child? What does it mean for God to become flesh? To become a child and to become flesh is to be weak and vulnerable. That is why when a child cries, we cannot just say go to the kitchen and prepare your food. At this time of our quarantine, we cannot just go out without the face mask or without regularly washing our hands. It is because to be a child or to be made of flesh is to be weak and to be vulnerable. Yet, in spite of these, our God became a child and became flesh so that He could redeem our weaknesses and vulnerabilities and give them new life. He can redeem our weaknesses because even if God became flesh, God also continues to be Divine.
The Union of the Human and the Divine Nature in One Divine Person of Jesus Christ
The two upraised fingers on the right hand of the Santo Niño proclaim to us our faith that the person of Jesus Christ is both human and divine. Jesus is fully human and He is also fully divine. That is why we call the Santo Niño “Señor,” because the image does not only proclaim Jesus as a cute child. The image also proclaims to us that Jesus who became a child is at the same time our God. That is why we can continue to pray to God because God understands our sufferings and our human struggles. More than His understanding, with Jesus’ remaining as God, Jesus also hears our prayers and brings us back to the Father.
The Divinity of Christ and the Orb on the Santo Niño
This divinity of Jesus is proclaimed in his kingly vestments and the posture of holding an orb with a cross on the left hand in the image of the Santo Niño. The posture of holding an orb has already been a symbol in antiquity of a person’s dominion of the world. This posture in the Santo Niño is a depiction of the child God’s dominion over the world as prophesied by Isaiah, “For a child is given to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonderful-Counselor, God Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (Is 9:5 NAB) At this time in our life, we might be scared, worried, and hopeless. This depiction reminds us that everything that we have such as our sorrows and pains are in the powerful hands of the Santo Niño. Let us not lose hope and courage.
The Passion of Christ and the Cross on the Orb
You might notice that there is a cross on top of this orb. This tells us that the dominion of God and his kingship is not of worldly power but through the power of the cross. The glory and the kingly throne of God are in the glory and throne of the cross. God’s dominion is not through the use of violence, anger or through the use of force. That’s why God did not come to us riding on a chariot with his army of angels. Rather he came to us in the form of a vulnerable infant. It is because His dominion is the dominion of love expressed in patience, waiting and in full trust to the love of His father. The glory of God is shown in his crucifixion. It is in his crucifixion that Christ also conquered death and sin. Many of us must already be impatient, restless and bored inside their houses because of the quarantine. The cross in the orb might be reminding us to practice patience and full trust that our sacrifices will be of help in our fight against the spread of COVID 19.
The Passion of Christ and the Red Cape
One of the distinct features of the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu is the red colored cape. This red color brings us to the image of the shedding of blood and the burning love of God to each one of us. The red color symbolizes the shedding of blood that is why we use this color on Palm Sunday when Christ entered Jerusalem to prepare for his death, Good Friday, commemoration of the Lord’s Passion or when we celebrate the martyrdom of our saints. Aside from this, it also speaks of God’s burning love that He became man and offered his life for us. That is why we use red vestments during Pentecost, the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation and votive Masses of the Holy Spirit. This red cape reminds us that our identity as God’s children does not depend on what we do and what we have or what other people say to us. It depends on God’s love for all of us.
The Resurrection of Christ and the White Inner Garment
You might have also noticed that inside the red cape of the Santo Niño de Cebu is a white inner garment. This inner white garment depicts the glorious resurrection of Christ. Like that garment placed underneath the symbol of Christ’s suffering, the glory of Christ’s resurrection is also hidden yet revealed after his dolorous passion. The color white is not just a symbol of glory. It is also the color of resurrection. Thus, the white garment in the Santo Niño proclaims Christ’s glorious resurrection by which He makes all things new. Christ has shown to us that he is our true king for has conquered sin and death through the power of his great love. We may be experiencing a lot of sufferings and deprivations at this time. But, the resurrection of Christ gives us hope because in the end life and love will always be victorious. After meditating on what the image is telling us, we ask ourselves how these insights and feelings resound in our own experience and in our life. How are we invited to imitate Jesus in our own lives at this moment? Where is God leading us?
After we have dwelt on these questions, we proceed to the next step which is the Oratio or Prayer.
In this stage, the spiritual meanings that were shown to us by the image turn into prayer. In this step of the lectio divina, we are guided to prayer as we direct our thoughts, emotions and will to God. We offer our difficulties and our desires at this moment to our King and our God in the image of the Santo Niño. We ask the Lord to liberate us from the evil of COVID 19 and we ask the Lord to give us the patience and strength to face the difficulties that we experience at the moment.
After our prayer, we proceed to the final step in our lectio divina which is contemplation. In this step, we rest in the mysteries of faith that are visually expressed to us in the image of the Santo Niño. We stand in awe before the mysteries of the life of Christ in front of us. We contemplate before the great love and humility of God who entered into our lives so that all of us can be saved.
In this article, I have shared with you how to pray with the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu using the ancient Christian practice of lectio divina. We said that we can pray with the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu because of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation, we have various ways of praying with the image of the Santo Niño. One of these ways is praying with the image of the Santo Niño guided by the practice of Lectio Divina. We said that in this practice, there are four steps namely, Lectio or Reading, Meditatio or Meditation, Oratio or Prayer and Contemplatio or Contemplation. In lectio, we silence ourselves as we “read” and gaze at the image of the Santo Niño. We notice the features that strike us and grab our attention. Then we proceed to Meditatio or Meditation where we ruminate on the features that strike us. We listen to our hearts the meaning of the feature that strikes us in our lives at the moment. After we have listened to the meaning, we lift up our feelings, desires, and thoughts to God in prayer or in the Oratio. Then, we go to contemplatio or contemplation where we rest in the mystery of God who continues to abide and stay with us.
In this time of enhanced community quarantine, let us take this opportunity to strengthen our relationship with God by spending a few minutes of our day praying with the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu through our Christian practice of Lectio Divina. I hope that this can deepen more our appreciation of this great gift of Santo Niño to us and most importantly deepen more our relationship with God.