Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Sto. Niño Mystique

Two steps forward then one step back. Not exactly an efficient way to get where you're going but if you are dancing in the streets of Cebu City to honor the the Sto. Niño or the Child Jesus during the Sinulog Festival on the 20th of this month then you are doing it exactly right. At least that was the way I did it when I too was a regular participant in that yearly festival many years ago.

Roman Catholics in Lianga also share with the Cebuanos a common devotion to the Child Jesus, also the town's patron saint. Its feast day in January is an occasion for celebration, a mini-fiesta, if you will, since the actual town fiesta is commemorated in the middle of August. To distinguish it from the regular fiesta, the town celebrates it as Araw Ng Lianga and socio-cultural activities and street dances are the highlights of the day long affair.

The drawing power and popularity of the Santo Niño as a symbol of religious faith among Filipinos even in Lianga is something that has always fascinated me over the years. This representation of Jesus Christ as a child could not be, in the strict sense, be a saint since that is a title reserved for actual human beings of exceptional sanctity and holiness who have gone to their heavenly reward. Yet because of its phenomenal popularity and the sheer devotion of its devotees, it has, in one sense, acquired a persona that can be considered separate from that of the adult Jesus Christ who is, by Catholic doctrine, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Perhaps there is something appealing in this personification of God in the form of an innocent, cuddly yet mischievous child. This can be gleaned from the many legends and stories about the Sto. Niño de Cebu which depicts it as one not above the playing of harmless pranks on its followers and the faithful while at the same time very generous in its dispensation of spiritual and temporal favors.

In Lianga, old folks also tell stories of the Child Jesus appearing in various disguises in order to directly intervene in human affairs during times of crisis. Bad weather and accidents at sea were said to have been averted by its intercession. Illnesses and disease have been supposedly cured by praying to it or by mere contact with its image or figure. On the other hand, it has also been described as not hesitant to severely punish sinners and those that have defiled its image or have ridiculed the religious rites and ceremonies made in its honor.

There are those who say that the reasons for the quick and enthusiastic acceptance of the devotion to the Sto. Niño can be traced back to earlier, pre-Spanish animistic beliefs predominant among the original inhabitants of the Philippine islands which were integrated and fused into the new Christian religion by the early Spanish friars. After all, the veneration of childlike deities or divine beings incarnated in the form of a small child is something not exactly rare in many religious beliefs in many parts of the world.

But irregardless of its origins, the cult of the devotion to the Sto. Niño is, in many distinct ways, uniquely Filipino. It is an integral part of the practice of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines and something that must be accepted for its rich history and colorful heritage.

In Lianga, the persona and the image of the Child Jesus remains a powerful symbol of the Catholic faith here. So it is, in a way, rather fitting and proper that it is in street dances where participants, in vividly colorful, ethnic costumes, traditionally give it the homage and adoration it is due. The swirling panorama of color and pageantry of the street dances is exactly what a child, even in divine form, would be most pleased to be honored and entertained with.

Two steps forward then one step back. Looks like a huge waste of energy if you really stop to think about it. But when you are caught in the excitement and religious fervor of the dances, it simply feels like the obvious and exhilarating thing to do. That plus the relentless pounding of the drums goading the dancers along, the slapping rhythm of countless feet on the pavement and the shouts of revelry and celebration.

This is Filipino Catholicism mixed with the pagan and the primitive echoes and influences of the distant past. It is religion expressed in rhythmic movement and exultation. And it is, certainly, even for the nonbeliever, not a bad way to let off some steam and have a rollicking, good time.

Hala bira! Pit Senyor!


  1. Sainthood is not "accorded or a title reserved for actual human beings of exceptional sanctity and holiness who have gone to their heavenly reward." No way in the bible where a dead person declared saint. When apostle Paul was writing to the Church in Ephesus and Colosse, he addressed the people "Saints". These people were alive during his time. The following are Bible truths.
    Acts 9:32-And it came to pass, as Peter passed throughout all quarters, he came down also to the saints which dwelt at Lydda.
    2 Cor 8:4 -Praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints.
    Eph. 1:1 - Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus:
    Col. 1:2 - To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Saint is bestowed to a person who put his/her faith in Christ. Hope you will be enlightened by these Bible truths.


  2. The discussion of saints in the blog post is concerned solely with the way the term "saint" is understood and used by Roman Catholics. Other Christian sects and denominations may interpret and use the same term in a different context.