Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Sunday, January 25, 2015



(Message of The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara at St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York on the occasion of the Fiesta Celebration of the Holy Child. 1/25/2015)

Whenever a new Filipino immigrant comes to the United States or to other countries, there are often three items included in his luggage: the photo album of his family, the phone numbers of his friends and the image of Santo Nino.  

It goes without saying that there are three important values in Filipino culture, and they are: family, community and faith. Some call it "the five F's": Faith, Family, Friends, Food and Festival.

Family is the basic unit of society and if you watch Philippine TV and cinema, most of the plots revolve around family. Community is the extension of this family. Every Filipino has around 100 family and friends. A Philippine senator once said that it is very difficult for the Philippines judiciary to have a jury system like the United States, because it will be difficult to find a member of the jury who is not related to the accused or the prosecution.

But we are here today not to praise or criticize Filipino cultural values but to celebrate the Feast of the Santo Nino. What is the Santo Nino? Where did the devotion originate? How did this devotion come to be embraced by the Filipinos? And what is the significance of the Santo Nino? 
Partly because there was no camera during the time of Jesus, our picture of Jesus is an artist rendition, gleaned from the words that He said and the inspiration that the artist gets from biblical accounts. There is a very popular picture of Jesus from the European point of view: a blond, blue-eyed Jesus with hair flowing down as He had just been from a beauty salon. There is a picture of Jesus from an African point of view: a black, curly haired Jesus. There is a picture of Jesus from a Latino point of view and many Asian points of view. The closest picture is probably the one from a Jewish or Palestinian point of view. 

The truth of the matter is that we do not really have an accurate photograph of the historical Jesus. What we have is a close approximation of the Jesus of faith. This close approximation is called an icon. An icon is defined as a “window to the divine.” 

Unlike Islam which is iconoclastic, Christianity is an iconic religion. In Islam, you are not supposed to have a drawing or statue of God Allah or the prophet Mohammad. Christianity on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus is the “icon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). By looking at the icon of Jesus, our hearts and minds are lifted up in religious fervor and inspiration.

The making of icons varies in its authority. The Orthodox Church is said to commission their iconographers and they set the guidelines for iconography. That is why their Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Coptic) icons have a distinctively peculiar pattern.  

 The Roman Catholic Church tends to leave the iconographers the freedom to make the icons and thereby have more variety in their presentations. Just look at the painting and sculptures of Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo and you will find a rich variety.

But mark this very carefully. Other religious denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Iglesia Ni Cristo and many fundamentalist, evangelical and Pentecostal churches warn the Orthodox, Catholics, Anglican, Episcopalians and Lutheran Churches about the use of icons. Some even accuse us of idolatry, quoting the words from the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself any idol, you shall not worship any graven image” (Exodus 20:4).

Of course we do not and should not worship the icons or any graven image. Just like a photograph of your loved, an icon represents a visual significance. We tend to live with meanings and oftentimes “a picture paints a thousand words.” When I look at the icon of Jesus, the four gospels are encapsulated in it. I worship not the icon of Jesus, but Who is behind it, the Jesus of faith.

The original Santo Nino is the icon of the “Holy Infant of Prague.” The icon was brought by a missionary who was part of the Spanish expeditions to the Philippine Islands. When they landed in Cebu City, he gave the icon to the queen of Cebu as a gift. Filipinos are innately religious and the beauty of the Christ Child was so compelling. So the King, Rajah Humabon was converted and the whole island, from the king and queen to the last slave, were baptized. And that was the beginning of Christianity in Asia. The Santo Nino became the contact point to break open the heart of the indigenous peoples to Christ.

 When my wife Angie and I visited the Czech Republic in 2012, we had the privilege of visiting this church where the Santo Nino originated. We viewed so many collections of this icon from various countries. Apparently, just like the icon of the Virgin Mary, so many countries where Catholicism has spread have their own versions of the Santo Nino icon.

Any devotion has its own histories, myths and legends. This is one version. The story goes that after Magellan left Cebu in 1521 and sailed over to the island of Mactan, the people led by Lapulapu resisted the Spaniards. In the ensuing battle, Magellan was killed. Subsequent expeditions returned to the area and tried to avenge the death of Magellan. They bombarded the islands but instead of hitting the yet-to-be Christianized Mactan, they wrongly hit the Christianized Cebu. From the ruins of the fire that ravaged Cebu, the icon of the Holy Infant of Prague was found unscathed but the color turned from European-white into Filipino brown. 

Someone said that “history is part fact and part fiction, but mostly interpretation.” So leaving the ambiguity of history, how do we interpret the meaning of Santo Nino into our lives? I offer three points:

1.     The Santo Nino honors the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, particularly His childhood. The Bible is relatively silent with regards to the childhood of Jesus. What was Jesus like as a child? We only know that Jesus was born in the stable in Bethlehem, that there were shepherds and angels, that there were wise men from the East who came to visit. Tradition named the three kings to be Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar. They offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then the holy family (Joseph, Mary and Jesus), fearing the threat from King Herod on the Child’s life, escaped to Egypt. When Herod died, they returned to Nazareth, where Joseph earned his living as a carpenter, being distinguished as an expert maker of yokes for the oxen. 

As a carpenter’s Child, Jesus was speaking from experience when He calls, “Come unto me, you who are weary and heavy-laden; for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:30) As a peace-Child, Jesus became the offering to break down the walls of hostility between God and man, between man and man, and between man and himself. The Cross of Jesus became the ultimate symbol of peace and reconciliation.

2.     The Santo Nino is a symbol for a child-like faith.  In Mark 10:15, Jesus said: "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all." And in Matthew 19:14 Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." 

Faith is simple, faith is like a child. Like love, faith “believes all things and hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13). When I was a child, I often found answers to some basic questions through the Santo Nino. We lived in the coastal village in the Philippines and my devout grandmother believed that we were spared from the attacks of the Limahong pirates because of the Santo Nino. When there was drought, the people would process the Santo Nino and miraculously there will be rain. When there was a cholera outbreak in our province, so many of us received miracle healing through the Santo Nino. 

So when I stowed away from home and went to Manila, it was no coincidence that the church that sheltered me as a fearful and homeless kid was none other than the Santo Nino Church. Later in life, my wife and I married at the Cathedral of the Holy Child, the Santo Nino.

3.     The Santo Nino is the contact point for miracles.  Miracles break open the heart of the people to God. Like in the fallowed ground, a miracle of rain softens the soil for the planting of the seeds.  In the gospel stories, Jesus used many contact point for miracles. Jesus turned water into wine and saved the day at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. In John 9:6 and Mark 8:23 how did Jesus heal the blind man? He spat on the ground, made some mud with the saliva and patched it on the man’s eyes. When the man washed his eyes, he had a perfect eye sight!

As a contact point for miracles, the Child Jesus wears a crown and holds a scepter for He is “King of kings and Lord of lords” from the beginning of time. He also holds an orb for the healing of the nations or a globe for He “holds the world in His hands.”

So it was not the sword of Magellan and the might of the Spanish conquistadores that converted the natives of the then “unchurched” Philippines. It was the grace of the Santo Nino, the Child Jesus, who as the “Peace Child” offers the Cross of salvation. It was the grace of the Santo Nino, who as a “Miracle Child” offers healing and reconciliation for the world He has made. It was the grace of the Santo Nino, who as the “King Child” offers abundant life in this world and in the world to come, life everlasting.

As we celebrate the Feast of the Santo Nino, may we be given the childlike faith to believe in God and the power of Christ’s resurrection. May we be given the grace to become messengers of Christ's love and the promise of eternal salvation. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you brother for a nice sharing of your faith.Truly the image of the sto nino brings us closer to God as fellow brethren in Him.