Saturday, January 20, 2007

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time C: Santo Niño, Feast Proper to the Philippines

Fr. Paul Bumanglag, SVD missionary in Vicenza, Italy
poses in front of the monument of Antonio Pigafetta,
Magellan's chronicler. Vicenza was Pigafetta's hometown.

The Text: Isaiah 9:1-6 (NAB)
1 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.
2 You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, As they rejoice before you as at the harvest, as men make merry when dividing spoils.
3 For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, And the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
4 For every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for flames.
5 For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
6 His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, From David's throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains By judgment and justice, both now and forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!

Santo Niño
This Sunday, third Sunday in Ordinary Time, is feast of the Santo Niño (Holy Child), a feast proper to the Philippines. The origin of the first image of the Santo Niño (now in Cebu) is interesting. When Magellan came to the Philippine Islands in 1521, his chronicler, the Italian Antonio Pigafetta gave as a gift to the local queen, Doña Juana, an image of Santo Niño. When the Spaniards returned in 1565, they found an image of the Santo Niño inside a house, enthroned in a sort of an altar, the image adorned with flowers. Thus, it shows that the locals continued their veneration of the image even without the Spaniards for more than 40 years. A legend today would even claim that locals addressed the image as "Bathala" (the Filipino name of God). See other stories on the origin of the image of Santo Niño, click on this site.

The Liturgical Readings
The Old Testament reading (Isa 9:1-6) and the Gospel text (Lk 2:41-52) are probably chosen as Liturgical readings for this Filipino feast because they allude to the child as divine. The prophet Isaiah speaks of "a child is born to us…on whose shoulders dominion rests…and whose name is “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace" (9:6). The evangelist Luke tells us a story of a child who gets lost from his parents and eventually found in the Temple. Asked why such a comportment, the child replies that he must be in his "Father’s House' (2:49). The child would grow to become the divine Jesus of Christian faith.

Historical Background of Isaiah 9:1-6
The context of Isaiah 9:1-6 is not so clear though biblical scholars share some reasonable suggestions. The text is likened to ancient Egyptian rituals celebrating the accession of a new pharaoh. Such enthronement is usually accompanied by the giving of throne names by the assembly of the gods and goddesses which ends with the divine assembly adopting the king as their child. Notice that in Isaiah 9, four names are conferred on the child.

A few suggestions have also been made as to the identity of this anonymous child “who is born to us” and who becomes a ruler. The most reasonable that we can think of here is the birth of Hezekiah, the future king of Judah. Both biblical and extra biblical sources attest to the war strategy employed Hezekiah against the invading Assyrian army led by Sennacherib (705 BC – 681 BC). In that invasion, through Hezekiah’s negotiation and prayer, Jerusalem was spared (2 Kings 18-20, Isaiah 36-39, click also this).
The Downfall of Sennacherib, an early work of Rubens (photo grab Wikipedia)

The text speaks of oppression in the familiar images of servitude yoke, pole, and rod (v. 3) - a "yoke placed in the neck" (Isa 10:27); the pole is used to strike the shoulders (see Isa 10:24); and the rod is an instrument for beating prisoners into subjection (see Isa 10:24).
The identity of the oppressor in this text is not also specified but interpreters point to a brief period foreign rule by the Assyrian empire, perhaps during campaign of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (744-727 B.C., see 2 Kgs 15:29) and later on continued by Shalmeneser V (726-722 B.C.). Oppressive means in those times include the payment of tributes to the empire and the exile of its leaders.
In any case, prophet Isaiah portrays in symbolic imagery the coming liberation of its people from oppression: the transition from the land of gloom (9:1), figurative language for the underworld (see Job 10:21-22) to a place of brilliant light. In other words, there will be an end to hostilities, war is abolished and replaced by "abundant joy". There will be peace (shalom) characterized by "judgment and justice" (mishpat and tsedaka, see 9:6).
All these great events would surely unfold because of the birth of a wonderful child.
The fact that such great hope could rest on a child would be a factor for Christians to identify the child with Jesus (note that this text is read at Christmas midnight mass, see also Lk 1:33).

The Child as Divine
It is unusual in the Bible and even in ancient Near East that a deity assumes the form of a child. In contrast, when gods are described, images that characterize strength and power are used. In Canaanite religion, the supreme god, called El, bears the title of "Bull". The goddess Anat could take form of an eagle. The god Baal is associated with thunder. In the Bible, God is at times compared with a lion (see Amos 1:3) or an eagle (Exod 19:4), even with a mother (Isa 66:13), but rarely with a child. The reason, perhaps, is that a child symbolizes weakness.

In short, that our God would assume the form of a child speaks of his humility and solidarity with those who are weak. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians articulates best this divine humility and solidarity (called kenosis in Greek):

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance,

he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (2:6-8 NAB).

1 comment:

Antoine said...

It is new to me that it is unusual for Gods to assume the form of a child. In the Christian case, I do find it revolutionary pala. I am struck, at least, in the way I understand the Incarnation. Thank you.