The Sto. Niño is believed to have arrived in the island of Cebu through Spanish Empire-commissioned Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan as a gift to the island's Queen Juana on the occasion of her baptism together with her husband, King Humabon, and the rest of the village on April 14, 1521.
"Our devotion to the Sto. Niño is not only religious by nature. It also has a historical dimension," Fr. Leonard Realiza told The FREEMAN in an email interview. Realiza is the curator of the Basilica Del Sto. Niño Museum.
The baptism of Queen Juana is the start of the evangelization of the Philippine islands, and even with the death of Magellan and his crew days after, the devotion to the Infant Jesus apparently continued, as evidenced by the discovery of the image by Spanish soldier Juan Camus in one of the houses that the Spanish colonizers burned.
While many native Cebuanos suffered the fire started by Legaspi, the Sto. Niño survived, and not just survive, it was discovered unscathed – fully intact and in all its splendor, with velvet clothes, woolen red hood, and jewelries.
"Our devotion to the Sto. Niño testifies to the birth of our faith and the beginning of the evangelization of our country," said Realiza adding that this mission is continued by the Agustinian Order by "proclaiming to the whole world the same Jesus, who once assumed the form of an infant when he was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary."
As the devotion to the Infant Christ in the Philippines was in its infancy, in the Catholic West, this devotion was already reaching its peak. Apparently, at this time, devotion to the Infancy of Christ in Spain was at its height owing to the visions of St. Teresa of Avila, who was also known to bring a small image of the Infant Christ wherever she sets up a new convent.
And so, the devotion to the Infant Christ has become popular all throughout like the Infant Jesus of Prague (Czechoslovakia), Sto. Niño de Atocha (Spain), Divino Niño Jesus (Colombia), and Santo Bambino di Aracoeli (Rome) to name a few.
However, Realiza said, that the despite the many names of the the Infant Christ, devotion is one and the same and the difference merely "reflect (the) different aspects of one and the same faith which those who fabricated them wanted to underscore." Fellow Agustinian scholar Fr. Czar Emmanuel Alvarez, concurred to this.
This is also the reason why in the Philippines, the Sto. Niño de los Pobres was born, reflecting the struggles of most Filipinos, and the Sto. Niño de Pescadores revered by fisherfolks. When one visits the Sto. Niño exhibit at Ayala Center Cebu, one would notice the many faces, costumes, and postures of the Sto. Niño.
"The differences in the way one and the same Infant Jesus is represented correspond with the place and time that the devotion to Him is promulgated and how the local people express their faith in Him and enter into a relationship with Him," Realiza explained.
"Here in Cebu we express our devotion to the Child Jesus in various ways, such as through the novena Masses in preparation for the liturgical feast of the Sto. Niño every third Sunday of January, processions, religious dances (Sinulog), novena prayer, the singing of the so-called “Gozos” or the Batubalani sa Gugma song accompanied by the waving of the hands, asking petitions by saying “Pit Senyor” while indicating the names of persons, and so forth," he said.
He clarified that there is no standard expression of devotion and worship since one's relationship with the Sto. Niño is personal, but he emphasized that "certain order or discipline" must be observed to avoid exaggerations.
"More importantly, our outward expression must correspond with what we really have in our hearts or what we truly believe in," he added.
This year, Realiza emphasized the theme adapted by the Basilica for the celebration – "Journeying Together in Faith with Santo Niño."
"The risk of reducing the whole celebration to a purely secular and cultural event is very high. People might end up focusing on the on-going external festivities, the gaiety and pageantry, the street dancing, the deafening music by various bands, the colorful costumes of the Sinulog dancers, etc., and forget the religious dimension of it all," he said.
"We want the people to grow in faith and to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ, who deigned to become a man like each and every one of us," he added.
"I hope that through their participation in the novena Masses they would intensify their faith experience as they listen to God’s word and message and really let the Child Jesus grow in their hearts and become the central point of reference of their entire lives," Realiza concluded.
First saw print in The FREEMAN on January 19, 2013.
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