by Fr. Williener Jack E. Luna, OSA
The image of Santo Niño is often associated with the season of Christmas and the many Santo Niño festivals in the country like the Ati-Atihan in Kalibo, Dinagyang Festival in Iloilo and the Sinulog in Cebu. It is during this time that we see the proliferation of the images of the Holy Child in the nativity scenes or held by dancing people on the streets. However, the richness of the theology of this image of the Holy Child goes beyond these season and festivals. The image of Santo Nino de Cebu can also be associated with the season of Lent because it also speaks about Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.
The Image of Santo Niño de Cebu as Narrative of Christ’s Mysteries
Aside from the infancy and childhood of Christ, the image of Santo Niño is also a narrative of the mysteries of the life of Christ. These mysteries refer to the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery (Passion, Death and Resurrection). This is made possible because of the mystery of the Incarnation as decreed by the Second Council of Nicea (787). When God became man in the incarnation, sacred images became instruments in knowing who God is. They have become man’s windows to the Beauty of the Divine. More than the common perception that the Santo Niño only deals with the affective devotion to the Holy Child, the image of the Christ Child in the Middle Ages is a means to convey theological information and allow the presentation of the essential mysteries of Christ. While the Western Christians have their books, the Filipinos have the image of Santo Niño de Cebu as one of the images that articulates who Jesus is for them. It is very helpful to rediscover that the beloved image of the Santo Nino is not just about the infancy of Christ. Aside from this, the image is also a narrative of the mysteries of Christ’s Incarnation, Passion, Death and Resurrection.
The Image of the Child as Sacrifice
Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) is depicted in the child image of Christ in the Santo Niño. Leah S. Marcus in her article “The Christ Child as Sacrifice: A Medieval Tradition and the English Cycle Plays” in The Christ Child in Medieval Culture, remarked that “one of the most bizaare, yet very common, miracles of the Middle Ages, the bread of the Eucharist is transformed between the very hands of the priest at Mass into a small living child.” This child, according to the commentators, is no other than the infant Jesus. Fr. Alberto L. Esmeralda, OSA mentioned in his article The Santo Niño and the Total Christ that “St. Nicholas 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 connection between the Eucharist and the Incarnation reveals that the image of Jesus as a Child is a depiction of Jesus who sacrificed Himself for the salvation of humanity. This sacrificial lamb who is innocent, powerless and meek is fittingly depicted by the image of the Child.
Red Vestment as Jesus’ Passion
The Passion of Christ is expressed in the red color vestment of the Santo Niño. In Liturgy, the color of vestments is “meant to give effective, outward expression to the specific character of the mysteries of the faith being celebrated.” According to William Saunders, the color red points to tow images. First, red symbolizes the shedding of blood and is therefore used on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, any other commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, the votive Mass of the Precious Blood, the days marking the martyrdom of the apostles (except St. John), and the feats of other martyrs who offered their lives for the faith. Second, red also symbolizes the burning fire of God’s love. It is this burning love of God that brought Jesus to offer his life for his people. This is the reason behind the use of red vestments during Pentecost, for the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation and for the votive Masses of the Holy Spirit. The red robe of the Santo Niño teaches us the internal unity and coherence of the earthly mission of the Son of God, which began with His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and culminated with the Paschal Mystery – that is, His Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Cross on Top of the Orb
The cross on top of the orb also depicts the Passion of Christ. However, this cross is perceived in the context of the Resurrection and Kingship of Christ. In the Christian faith, the cross is not just a symbol of death and suffering. More than this, it is also an expression of the triumph of Christ over the powers of darkness. For Christians, the cross is an instrument of salvation because it is on the cross where Christ expressed His unconditional love to His people.
The Crown, Scepter and Globus Cruciger
The Resurrection and Kingship of Christ are expressed in the crown, scepter and the globus cruciger of the image of Santo Niño. Its perpetual novena opens with these words of acknowledging the Kingship of Christ: ” O Señor Santo Niño, You are our king and our God, we worship you…” Furthermore, the Kingship of Christ is also proclaimed when the devotees shout “Pit Señor!” during the sinulog dance. “Señor” is a Spanish word which means “Lord” in this devotion. Jesus in the image of the Santo Niño is the “Lord of lords and King of kings.”(Rev 17:4) The Psalmist also proclaims, “For the Lord is the great God, the great king over all gods, whose hand holds the depths of the earth; who owns the top of the mountains.” (Ps 95:3) The Scriptures are filled with the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and King. However, this lordship of Christ does not refer to the worldly kings and rulers. Jesus tells his persecutors, “My kingship is not of this world.” (Jn 18:36) It is because His Kingship is a kingship over all creation. Christ’s resurrection conquered death and the whole humanity is given hope to be reoriented to God. Thus, the death of Christ did not go in vain because He also rose from the dead and became victorious over death. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith is also is vain.” (1 Cor 15:14) This would not be unusual because the infancy narratives in the Gospel which is the iconographical transcription of the image of the Santo Niño were written in the light of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.
The image of Santo Niño de Cebu is a rich resource of our Christian faith. It is not only an image that we see during the season of Christmas and the many Santo Niño festivals. Aside from these, we can also meditate on the image of the Santo Niño in the season of Lent because the image is also a narrative of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. As we read this narrative in the image of Santo Niño, may we strengthen our devotion to Christ who became one of us as a little child to show His unconditional love to us in the cross.