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The Santo Niño and the Total Christ

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With the feast of the Sto. Niño coming up, let me offer some thoughts on this subject. I think it is time to put to devotion to Sto. Niño on a firm theological basis, otherwise, such a devotion will just degenerate into idolatry, as it already has in some areas. The main difficulty in theologizing about the devotion is that it is based on an image. Unlike some devotions where the basis is on an event (e.g., the appearances at Fatima), the devotion to Sto. Niño is entrenched on the image that the Magellan expedition of 1521 left behind in the Philippines. While it is true that the image represents a particular mystery of the life of the Lord (his infancy), devotees have focused on the image in such a way that popular piety surrounding the Niño has developed features that are akin to idolatry. To counteract this, those promoting the devotion have (a) integrated an event into the content of the devotion (the Christian missions that began in 1565) (b) developed a theology of spiritual childhood (based on that of St. Therese of Lisieux, see the Ordo instructions for January the Feast of the Holy Childhood), (c) integrated sayings of the Lord about children and the kingdom of God into the novenario. Both (a) and (c) are to be found in the novenario of the Santo Niño de Cebu as currently used. These two features of the devotion have to be deepened along lines that are based on the Christology of “The Total Christ”

“The Total Christ” is one of the rich features of St. Augustine’s theology. Simply stated, it is a theological insight that draws from the unity of Christ the Head and His Body the Church. It sees the inseparability between the two such that what one sees in the Head can also be said of the Body and vice versa (e.g. the glorified Head and the glorious Body of the saints, the ecclessia pressa and the Suffering Christ, etc.). When applied to an image-based devotion like that of Sto. Niño the “Total Christ theology” can be helpful in (a) associating a richer fare of Scriptural passages to the devotion itself, (b) awaken a deeper devotion to the Savior contemplated within the totality of the Mystery and (c) awaken a deeper sense of commitment to one’s baptismal vows and one’s sense of belongingness to the Body of Christ. So how do we go about the process of contemplating the image of the Sto. Niño in the light of the Total Christ?

1. See the Sto. Niño as an image of the Church that still needs to grow into the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13). Looking at the Sto. Niño this way forces us to look at the kind of Christians we are within the context of the Philippine Church. PCP II has diagnosed the brand of Catholicism we have and has shown us where we are lacking. The image of the Sto. Niño reminds us of how immature we are and invites us to repentance and conversion.

2. Consider the “dark complexion” of the image as an invitation for Filipinos to continue the Incarnation in such a way that their Church truly becomes the historical extension of Christ’s salvific activity. God wants to be Filipino too. Paul VI once said that as God became contemporaneous to us in a first century Jew, so we too should make the Gospel contemporaneous to our times by giving it the material of our own lives, just as Mary did.

3. See the regal bearing of the Christ-child as a reminder that in Him, the oracle in Isaiah 9:1-7 is fulfilled (see how this oracle is used in Matthew 4:12-23): He is the Light that breaks through the darkness of human miseries and awakens hope in a kingdom of peace and justice that is already here and-not-yet.

4. The Sto. Niño reminds us of the faith that reached Filipino shores through the efforts of missionaries following in the steps of St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (it is not coincidental that the convent of the Augustinians at Intramuros was originally named after St. Paul). It is a faith that is “from the beginning” (1 Jn. 1:1), handed down to us with guarantee from the blood of the martyrs (Calungsod and Ruiz).

5. There was a time when the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist was symbolized by the image of Mary holding up her child for adoration. The image is associated with a hymn that proclaims the continuity between the Incarnation and the Eucharist: The Ave Verum. Nicolas of Tolentino once lamented to a friend that old age has robbed him of one of the pleasures of his childhood: to see the Eucharistic bread turn into the baby Jesus at the moment of consecration (this is from the process of the Tolentine’s canonization). This connection between the Eucharist and the Incarnation should also be integrated to the devotion to Sto. Niño. This aspect of the devotion also opens up to a Marian theme: Mary’s motherhood, both as Theotokos and as Mother of the Church.

Originally posted 2008-01-15 21:31:42. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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