The late National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin called the Santo Niño de Cebu as a culture hero of the country. History shows that Magellan presented this little image of the Child Jesus as a gift to the Queen of Cebu. This coming Sunday, January 16, the Catholic Church in the Philippines will celebrate the feast of this little child with great fervor and devotion. After the feast of Jesus Nazareno (Jesus Carrying the Cross), Catholics will again venerate the same God-man in a different light, in another form. And this time not as the Suffering Messiah but as a triumphant Child-King who holds the world in His hand. Our love for this Christian image reflects the growth of Christian maturity. We have been Catholics more than five centuries and yet our faith like the Santo Niño remains infantile.
In Southern part of the country, especially Cebu and Aklan, indigenous drums will start beating the tribal rhythm and cadence with ephemeral dances in the street and colorful costumes and joyful shouts of Pit Señor will be heard in all corners of the polis. How did it become a cultural icon of this country will require us to travel 600 years ago when this little traveler reached our shore and from that time on, he has changed the terrain of our history. Aside from the cross, which Magellan erected, the Santo Niño has become a symbol of Catholicism in the country; a towering icon that made the epochal voyage that proved the world is round. For Magellan, this little child was his personal patron. The orb in his fist challenged Magellan to circumnavigate this world amidst the prevailing belief that the world is flat. Magellan faced obstacles and crossed barriers and traversed the vast ocean to discover new frontiers and unknown geography. Magellan and company, now dusts, would be good advertisers for Ginebra’s latest ad campaign Bilog ang Mundo!
In Joaquin’s book Culture and History, he described the coming of Santo Niño as the birth of the country called the Philippines. Our love to this image of Christ sprang forth the moment the tribal queen of Cebu received it as a gift. Seeing the image for the first time, the native queen felt in love with it that according to written accounts by the chronicler, the queen wept and asked to be baptized. The love for the image continued even after Magellan’s death. The kingdom of Cebu continued honoring the Santo Niño. It became a tribal god, primarily, the rain god of the people, a powerful deity that during the arrival of the Legazpi expedition, the Santo Niño has already established a renowned refutation of being powerful and mightier compared to other tribal gods. Such was his power and might that the natives fleeing the coming of the Spaniards whom they thought will vindicate for Magellan’s death, burned all the houses and places of worship except the house where the rain god was venerated. In Cebu, like in the Egypt, wherein the Holy Family fled and became refugees, the same Christ functioned a pagan role unnoticed and unknown. Our present tradition of venerating the image also traced its roots to our pre-Magellanic era, Joaquin wrote that to make rain, it was carried in procession to the sea and dipped in the water, sacrifices were offered to it and it was anointed with fragrant oils. A ritual of dances and wild hopping were developed in accordance with the celebration that even today, this kind of celebration survives. The bathing of the image in the sea to make pleas for rain continue to exist in the fluvial procession. Water is indeed an important element in human civilizations. Can this be the same reason that could explain our own fluvial procession of the Lady of Peñafrancia and her son, Jesus Christ?
Through the years, we have seen how this little child has played an important part in the life of every Catholic Filipinos. From Cebu, the Spaniards brought the devotion to the little child to the North, to the old kingdom of Tondo. The same image has been evolving through the years of Christianization and the rest become history. Now we have many images of Santo Niño. From the first image of Santo Niño de Cebu, the same image of Christ traveled into our homes, schools, department stores, tiangges, jeepneys, hospitals, and government houses, police stations and even in beer houses. We have seen it printed in calendars, books and devotional materials. It has been an image of refuge, a patron, a devotional statue to the poor and miserables, a lucky charm to some fanatics, and a cultural icon, a symbol of a Catholic and yet most of the times, an unchristian country.