The Feast of the Holy Child, otherwise known as the Sto. Niño, is to be celebrated on 20 January this year. It falls during the traditional dates for observing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January). The feast is peculiar to the Philippines and to Filipinos, and I recently learned that an older date for observing this is 14 January. Hence, it always happens that the Week of Prayer is observed in the Philippines outside the fixed dates, and hence ignored by most Christians. (And I’m not just blaming the Romans here, mind you. A source tells me that an Anglican parish which is otherwise very cosmopolitan has little planned for this occasion.) Also, the observance is overshadowed by National Bible Week, which is an event far more ecumenical in observance as it is sponsored by all the Christian umbrella organizations I can think of, not to mention that it is backed by government fiat.
I often wonder why we don’t take the trouble to make this more significant, considering that the Pope himself recently urged Christians to take the Week of Prayer very seriously. I think that the key lies in drawing from the Bible (thus hitting three birds in one stone) and that a theme for our reflection is Isaiah 11:6. More precisely, the last few words of that verse are what I would like to draw attention to: “…and a little child will lead them.”
The vision of peace that Isaiah promises under the reign of the Messiah, Emmanuel, is a vision towards which all humanity is called to travel. For Christians, the journey involves overcoming all the “great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions,” as the Book of Common Prayer calls them. For a hundred years now, Christians have by common prayer and action sought to achieve progress toward unity. However, a hundred years on, we still do not have unity, but rather more division. I find it tragic that Christians can disagree on much more things than Muslims do. Yet, more often than not, our differences, legitimate though they are, are either not worked out in discussion or swept under the “We’re all Christian anyway” rug. We have come to accept that diversity is going to be a reality of the visible Church; it does not distort our unity but rather makes it a sign of witness to a world divided by many things. It is that aspect which resonates elsewhere in that verse—lions and lambs lying together are unimaginable, but so would the possibility of Roman Catholics embracing the Week of Prayer back when it started!
“And a little child will lead them.” The Holy Child can be called many things by people who may not understand the great love and devotion many Filipino Catholics (and Aglipayans) have for the Christ Child, but the innocence which he represents is part of the vision Isaiah has of the Messiah’s reign. It is not a naivete that does not see reality for what it is, but a hope of what will be. A child seems to have more hope than most of us have; one only need to look at the eyes of a child as Christmas comes to see what I mean. It is a child who will lead the lion and lamb, the leopard and the kid, because the child sees more than the cynicism of “it can’t happen.”
What if we saw the Christ Child as the one who leads us to the unity, as a much older man facing death, for which he prayed at the Last Supper? We have to bear in mind that there is something difficult with popular piety around the Christ Child, but the point has to be made that this is the same Christ who hoped that all his sheep would be in one sheepfold under one shepherd. We have to hold together the tensions between the Child and the Man this feast establishes, because this child is not merely a symbol of child-like faith, as the official catechetical line would put it, but a sign of hope. If we cannot achieve unity in our time, then we can hope that it will happen. Then we can really pray, with Christ:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” – John 17:20-21.
Let the Christ Child be our guide toward the unity for which Christ prayed. Viva Sto. Niño! Viva Cristo Rey!