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The Santo Niño and National Bible Sunday

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The Church in the Philippines celebrates National Bible Sunday immediately following the Feast of the Santo Niño. It is a celebration that emphasizes the role of Sacred Scriptures in the life of the Church as it is laid out in Vatican II’s “Dei verbum”, following upon the spirit of the Philippine National Bible Congress held sometime in the late 1980s. That the celebration follows that of the Feast of the Santo Niño should not be surprising since the mystery of the Inspired Word is closely linked to the Incarnation.

Verbum Domini

The idea that the Sacred Scriptures is to be understood in the same way that one regards the mystery of God Incarnate is explicitly stated in “Verbum domini” the newest apostolic exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI. In a section under the interpretation of Scriptures, the Pope underlines the importance of the historico-literary method of interpreting Scriptures saying:

For the Catholic understanding of sacred Scripture, attention to such methods is indispensable, linked as it is to the realism of the Incarnation: “This necessity is a consequence of the Christian principle formulated in the Gospel of John 1:14: Verbum caro factum est. The historical fact is a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith. The history of salvation is not mythology, but a true history, and it should thus be studied with the methods of serious historical research (Benedict XVI, Intervention in the Fourteenth General Congregation of the Synod (14 October 2008): Insegnamenti IV, 2 (2008), 492; cf. Propositio 25).”

The Catholic understanding of the sacred Scripture’s link to the Incarnation is not new; the Fathers of the Church have noted it and perhaps it is Augustine who gives it a most vivid formulation. In a phrase recalled in the above cited document, Augustine says:

through all the words of sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single word, his one utterance, in whom he expresses himself completely (cf. Heb 1:1-3)”.[Catechism of the Catholic Church, 102; Cf. also Rupert of Deutz, De Operibus Spiritus Sancti, I, 6: SC 131:72-74] Saint Augustine had already made the point clearly: “Remember that one alone is the discourse of God which unfolds in all sacred Scripture, and one alone is the word which resounds on the lips of all the holy writers”.[Enarrationes in Psalmos, 103, IV, 1: PL 37, 1378. Similar statements in ORIGEN, In Iohannem V, 5-6: SC 120, pp. 380-384] (Verbum domini)

The “one single word” of God, that “utterance in whom He expresses Himself completely” is Christ, the one word of God echoed by the many words of men in Scriptures. Pope Benedict XVI mentions this as the “Christology of the Word”

The patristic and medieval tradition, in contemplating this “Christology of the word”, employed an evocative expression: the word was “abbreviated”.[Ho Logos pachynetai (or: brachynetai)”. Cf. Origen, Peri Archon, I, 2,8: SC 252, 127-129] “The Fathers of the Church found in their Greek translation of the Old Testament a passage from the prophet Isaiah that Saint Paul also quotes in order to show how God’s new ways had already been foretold in the Old Testament. There we read: ‘The Lord made his word short, he abbreviated it’ (Is 10:23; Rom 9:28) … The Son himself is the Word, the Logos: the eternal word became small – small enough to fit into a manger. He became a child, so that the word could be grasped by us”.[Benedict XVI, Homily on the Solemnity of the Birth of the Lord (24 December 2006): AAS 99 (2007), 12] Now the word is not simply audible; not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face, one which we can see: that of Jesus of Nazareth.[Cf. Final Message, II, 4-6]

It is thus that the document “Verbum domini” brings us back to the feast of Christmas and reminds us of the link between the Bible and the Feast of the Holy Child.

Devotion to the Sto. Nino

We have in a previous article explained that the devotion to the Sto. Niño should be seen within the Augustinian theology of the Total Christ. It is not the dancing or the merry-making associated with the Santo Nino de Cebu that matters, since this could be just the manifestation of material idolatry. What really matters is that the feast — like all other feasts in the Church — draw us to conversion and to a more faithful living of our baptismal vows. Unlike its counterpart, the Nazareno of Quiapo, the celebration of the Santo Niño de Cebu does not lend itself easily to practices of penance and prayer because of the boisterious merry-making it generates. And because it is a popular devotion based on an image — not a verified and approved private revelation like the Sacred Heart or Lourdes — it can easily lead to idolatry, both materially and formally. Popular religiosity can be the expression of a lived Christian commitment but in some cases, it can just be superstition.

The ORDO describes the Feast of the Santo Niño as an opportunity for teaching children to actively participate in the mission of the Church. It also stresses the relevance of the way of spiritual childhood described by St. Therese of Lisieux. The Novena of the Santo Niño reminds us of the way Christianity came to Philippine shores and how the Church that grew up under the work of the first missionaries is still like a babe. When we look at the image of the Christ-child, we are reminded of the babe prophesied in Isaiah 9. It already bears the titles of a king and yet it is still small and — why not say it ? — immature. As immature as a Church which may enjoy a lot of influence in the political life of the Philippines but which has failed to promote its growth in the moral life. Remember the statement which started out as a joke by a stand up comedian: The Philippines is 85% Catholic and so if there is a crime somewhere or a dishonesty is committed, it would be 85% of the time perpetrated by a Catholic. When it was first stated, Urbano acting as Mr. Shoo Li generated laughter from the Catholic bishops. They are not laughing now.

The Church in the Philippines needs to grow in faith and fidelity to the Gospel. The devotion to the Sto. Niño should promote that desire. The feast is followed by National Bible Week that culminates on Bible Sunday. If devotion to the Santo Niño or the celebration of its feast is to be considered “successfull”, it should not be because of the number of the faithful who joined in the merry-making but in the number of those who begin to take the Scriptures seriously, integrate the reading of the Bible in their way of life, and be led by that reading to the Eucharist from which they would derive the energy to participate in the mission of the Church: evangelization.

Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, insincerity, envy, and all slander;
like newborn infants,
long for pure spiritual milk
so that through it you may grow into salvation,
for you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
and, like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood
to offer spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:1-5)

These words from 1 Peter should be the inspiration of those who call themselves devotees of the Holy Child. May these words move us to make the Feast of the Sto. Niño a fitting start for a meaningful celebration of National Bible Week.

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