“It’s a small comfort to know there’s a specific Latin term that aptly summarizes 2020: annus horribilis.” So writes Justin Doebele in the December issue of Forbes Asia, and the world will probably agree that 2020 was a “year of horror”. That is why the year that is beginning is an especially hope-filled one (nowhere to go but up). But for us, Pinoys, 2021 must be an even more special Year of Hope, because it is the 500th year of Christianity in the Philippines.
In its strict sense, Christian Hope is the theological “virtue” (stable disposition or habitual inclination) of desiring Heaven (eternal happiness in union with God) and trusting in God’s help to get there. Thus, Hope is not concerned with just any temporal good (e.g., an end to the Covid pandemic) but with the ultimate purpose of human existence: the “one thing necessary” of the Gospel (because everything else is only of relative importance [cf. Lk 10:42]). Hope concerns the salvation offered by Christianity, i.e., one’s enjoying the benefits of the redemption accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ.
1521—500 years back from 2021—was the year Magellan discovered the Philippines for Spain, on the same expedition that resulted in the first circumnavigation of the globe (by the Victoria, Magellan’s last surviving ship, which arrived back in Spain in 1522); and, most important for us (at least, for the 80 million or so Filipino Catholics), the arrival of Christianity in this part of the world. Were it not for this “accident” of history, we might not have become Christians at all. (A friend pointed out to me that Magellan was looking for the Moluccas or Spice Islands and, as a matter of mathematical probability, should have hit some part of the bigger land masses of Indonesia or Malaysia.)
We know from the firsthand account of Antonio Pigafetta that the first Mass on Philippine soil was celebrated by Father Pedro de Valderrama in Limasawa (Southern Leyte) on March 31, 1521, Easter Sunday; that the first converts were baptized a couple of weeks later, among whom were the Kings of Limasawa (Rajah Kulambu) and of Cebu (Rajah Humabon), with their spouses; and that, for the occasion, the Queen of Cebu—renamed “Juana” at Baptism in honor of the mother of the reigning King Carlos I of Spain (Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire)—was gifted with a wooden image of the Infant Jesus. Apparently, this was the same image discovered in 1565 by one of the men in the expedition led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, from the ashes of the village torched by the Spaniards in the course of hostilities.
The image has since been venerated as the Santo Niño de Cebu, perhaps the most visually powerful (and oldest extant) symbol of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, meriting a “special” (only in the Philippines) liturgical feast on the Third Sunday of January each year (January 17 this year).
Forty years ago, on his first visit to the Philippines, Saint Pope John Paul II said: “God’s providence in the Philippines has been truly wonderful. The Christianization that took place in the sixteenth century was not something merely accidental. Divine grace was at work when the people of this region had their first contact with the image of the Santo Niño” (Homily, 19 Feb. 1981).
There is much in the image of the Infant Jesus that should inspire Hope in us: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’” (Is 9:2-6). And the infant-image should also apply to us; as our Lord Himself says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God. Amen I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter into it” (Mk 10:14-15).
Our special Filipino devotion to the Holy Infant also partly explains what, to some, were our inordinately prolonged “season” of Christmas: beginning in September, the first of the “-ber months” (forgetting Advent), ending not at the proper liturgical point of the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord (Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany), but on the Feast of the Santo Niño a week later. We are simply a people in love with the Christ Child—and so, also with His Mother, our guide, the sign by which we know it is the Lord we are approaching: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son; and they shall call his name Emmanuel’”; which is, interpreted, ‘God with us’” (Mt 1:23; cf. Is 7:14). No wonder we are also un pueblo amante de Maria, a people devoted to Mary.
St. Josemaria Escriva writes: “Every time Christmas comes around, I love to look at representations of the child Jesus. Statues and pictures which show a God who lowered himself remind me that God is calling us. The Almighty wants us to know that he is defenseless, that he needs men’s help… Christ tells you and me that he needs us. He urges us to live a christian life to the full — a life of self-sacrifice, work and joy” (Christ is Passing By, No. 18).
With the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, may we all grow in the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ this 2021, the Year of Saint Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church. Blessed New Year to everyone! (12.I.2021)