“Feast of the Sto. Nino”, by Fr. Robert Manansala, OFM

There is an expression that says: “There is a little child in all of us, and if that child is extinguished, if he or she does not have a chance to speak and to live, we very quickly die as human beings.”

The Jesuit Fr. Joseph Galdon narrates a story about a Jesuit Prison Chaplain. According to the Prison Chaplain, one day the prisoners had a Therapy Session which involved making toy animals out of rags and scraps of cloth. The prisoners made toy squirrels and rabbits and all kinds of cloth animal for themselves.

That night the Jesuit Prison Chaplain was surprised to see the prisoners bringing their animal toys to bed with them. The prisoners were imprisoned for all kinds of despicable crimes like murder and rape. But in the first room the prisoner was cuddling his stuffed rabbit. In the second room the prisoner was reading his toy squirrel a bedtime story. In the third room there were just two heads on the pillow – the prisoner’s and the rabbit’s.

The case of the prisoner named Miko was different and tough. He had just dumped his rabbit on the table next to him. When asked by the Chaplain if he would take his rabbit with him, Miko said: “I do not sleep with crazy rabbits.” The Chaplain apologized to Miko and said he thought the rabbit might become lonely by being alone on the table. But when the Chaplain went back to Miko’s room much later, he saw that Miko had made a bed out of a shoe box. He had put his cloth rabbit in the shoe box and made a cover for him out of a handkerchief.

Fr. Galdon, reflecting on the touching experience shared by the Jesuit Prison Chaplain, writes: “You cannot kill the child in people. You can cover it up, you can hide it, you can beat it, you can do all sorts of horrible things to it, but it will still be there. And God will still be reaching out to speak to that child – and heal it – to help it grow into the sort of person it ought to become.”

The Feast of Sto. Nino today celebrates our nation’s great devotion to the child Jesus that has been maintained since 1521 with the gifting of new Christian queen Juana with the image of the Sto. Nino by Magellan The devotion has acquired different cultural trappings and practices that can be called as indigenously native, foremost of which are the Sinulog festivities on this day.

What challenges does the Feast of Sto. Nino pose to us as Christians? Let me reflect with you on three challenges.

First, the devotion to the Sto. Nino reminds us of Jesus humbly identifying himself with us in our humanity. The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us. He was born a helpless and vulnerable child. He became a child. He grew up in age, knowledge, wisdom, virtues and in the love and the grace of the Lord. He experienced what we experience in terms of human growth processes. He became close to us, near to us, becoming like us in all things except sin.

We have seen images of Sto. Nino wearing a Barong Tagalog. Sto. Nino in a basketball uniform. Sto. Nino dressed in a kamiseta. Sto. Nino in shorts. While some people may not agree with these practices, they all boil down to the reality of God being one with us in all things except sin. Jesus is the God Emmanuel – the God who is with us. Many people can identify with the Sto. Nino because He has identified with us first.

Second, the devotion challenges us to be childlike, to reclaim the inner child within us, in the face of growths, of sophistications, of experiences of pain as adults. The child possesses so many endearing qualities that we should never let go even when we are already adults. Child-like qualities like trust, forgiveness, simplicity, transparency, dependence.

In the gospel reading today, we see people bringing their children to Jesus that he may bless them. The disciples tried to prevent the children in the guise of protecting Jesus from disturbance and nuisance. What was not immediately apparent was the prevailing mentality towards children during the time of Jesus, which may have influenced Jesus’ disciples in the way they were treating the children. Like the widows and women in that time, the children were considered unimportant and “nobodies’ in society. Children did not enjoy rights and did not have value in Jewish society. The disciples thought Jesus, a rabbi who was becoming very popular, must not be disturbed by a group of children considered unimportant in society.

Jesus broke this prevailing mentality towards children by allowing them to come to him. In fact, this was one of the times that we Jesus becoming indignant. He said, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them.” Then, perhaps to the great surprise of the disciples, he presented the children as recipients of the Kingdom of God and as models for those who wanted to enter the Kingdom of God. “For the Kingdom belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” God’s Kingdom belongs to the little, to the childlike, to those who consider themselves and are considered as unimportant, to the nobodies. The Kingdom belongs to the nobodies and unless we become like the nobodies, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

In this world, we all want to be somebodies. There is a tendency to always compete, to be better than the others, to be ahead even at the expense of other people. This is not the way of the Kingdom. The way of the kingdom is the way of the childlike, of the humble, of the trusting, of the simple, of the nobodies. Indeed, there is so much to learn from little children.

The comedian Tom Bodett says that his best friend and best man at his wedding told him that he was going to learn the greatest and the most important things in life from his children. Bodett continues that he did not initially believe this until he truly allowed himself to be taught by his own children and by the children of other people.

Julie A. Johnson says that we are always teaching children – teach them rules, teaching them how to behave, teaching them skills. And sometimes, we forget that children can also teach us a lot and that there is a lot that we can learn from them. Or at least, we forget the things that we ourselves learned when we were little children.

Let us take one important lessons that we learned or we were supposed to learn as children or lessons that children can remind us of.

If you fall, you can cry for a bit, but then get up and start again. When a child takes stumble and wounds his or her knee, he or she might need to be comforted for a bit. But the child quickly recovers and starts to play again. Is this not a very important lesson for all the adults? When you fall, be sorry but do not brood. We can start all over again.

Finally, we cannot have a devotion to the Sto. Nino and at the same time neglect our children. I refer here not only to your own children, but to all the children in our midst. The devotion to the Sto. Nino must also impel us to take care of and protect our children and the vulnerable.

According to the Statistics, there are about 1.5 Million Street Children in the Philippines. The Stairway Foundation reports there are three categories of street children: children on the streets, children of the streets and completely abandoned children. Children on the streets work on the streets like beggars or peddlers but do not live there. They return to their poor abodes after working. Some of them continue to attend school while working long hours on the streets. The so-called children on the streets comprise 75% of the street children.

Children of the streets live on the streets. They make the streets their homes. Although some of them may still have family ties, which are often bad or dysfunctional, these children usually form a family with other street children. They make up the 25-30 % of the street children in the Philippines.
Completely abandoned children are children with no family ties and are entirely on their own for their physical and psychological survival. They comprise about 5% to 10% of the street children in the Philippines.

Street children face a lot of social problems which include drugs, health problems, summary execution, child prostitution, child abuse and many others.

In summary, the feast of the Sto. Niño is a reminder of God’s nearness to us in Jesus who became like us in all things, including becoming a child, for the love of God and for our salvation. The feast also reminds us to be like little children, to be children, in the face of the world’s propensities for sophistication, independence, and self-centeredness. Indeed, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God if we do not become like little children. Finally, the feast reminds us of the inherent Filipino love for children, with whom Jesus has identified himself, to be translated into concrete deeds and programs that protect and alleviate the suffering of the children and the vulnerable in our midst. We cannot take care of many images of the Sto Nino while neglecting the children in our midst.

About Fr. Robert and his reflections