To Protect and to Protest – Norlan Julia, SJ

Matthew 18:1-5, Feast of the Sto Niño


The feast of Sto. Niño, is strictly speaking, a liturgical feast celebrated only in the Philippines. In other countries, there is no feast day assigned for Sto. Niño. Yet, where there are communities of Filipino anywhere in the world, the feast of Sto. Niño is celebrated with the same fervor and joy. The same enthusiasm and vibrancy experienced in Cebu City, the origin and center of the devotion to the Sto. Niño, is felt in these celebrations of the diaspora Filipino communities.

This feast extends the spirit of the Christmas season when Christians reflect on the mystery of the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. This all-powerful and all-knowing God holds the world in his hands. He “founded the earth it on the seas and established it on the waters” (Ps. 24.1). At his sight, the waters trembled and their very depths convulsed (Ps. 77.16). Yet, in the infant born of the Virgin, he is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “divinity dwindled into infancy.” Indeed, although he was “in very nature God, (He) did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2.6-7). This is what we celebrate in this feast of Sto. Niño: our God choosing to be small, to be weak, to be humble.

At the same time, the Gospel reading, turns our attention to the smallest in our midst: the children. But the children here are meant to symbolize and include all others considered insignificant and useless in society: the unborn, the elderly, the recovering addicts, the slum and streetdwellers. The Lord’s warning is quite clear: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Mt.18.10). Hence, the celebration of the Christmas recently passed and of Sto. Niño Feast among Filipino is riddled with irony and puzzle. For while images of cute bambinos and fancy-dressed Niños are kissed and waved, real flesh and blood innocent youth and rounded up and shoot. While hands are raised in worship of tiny and cute statues, thumbs up are given to routinary murders occurring among the smallest and poorest in society.

The feast of Sto. Niño is a cause for celebration. In this feast, we proclaim our faith in God’s mysterious condescension: his decision to take up the weakness, weariness, and waywardness of our humanity. Not to be overcome by it, but to redeem and transform it. Hence, this same feast should also be an occasion for us to take up the Gospel challenge: to protect the smallest and the poorest, and to protest against the gradual numbing of moral senses. Otherwise, religion becomes an empty show devoid of any transformative power and rituals become a spectacle of a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Sc.5).


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