IN RECENT YEARS, there has been a proliferation of various images of the Holy Child: in some, he is dressed like a soldier or a doctor, in others, a fisherman or a pilot. I am not sure why the Infant Jesus was made to take these countenances, but the real image remains that of a child who wears the garb of a king, with crown on his head, scepter on one hand, and the universe on the other. The reason partly comes from the First Reading (Isa 9:1-7), which is the most famous messianic prophecy. God will liberate his people from oppression, through the agency of a child, who is a prince of peace. If the image has any meaning at all, it is meant to convey that this child, helpless and innocent though he is, is the king of peace, who is so powerful that he holds the world in his hand, and the liberator of the human race.
When we think of a liberator, we associate him with Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon Bonaparte. They are mighty warriors, who defeated their enemies and established empires over which they ruled. Through wars, power, and oppression, they subjugated nations and put their enemies under their feet. That is how worldly power works. But in the ways of the divine, one conquers the world not through power, but through weakness. If Jesus conquered world, sin and death, and now sits at the right of God, it was not through violence, but by submitting himself to the powers of this world. He showed his weakness by allowing himself to be humiliated, crucified and killed. It was in his frailty that he was recognized, especially in the Johannine theology, as king: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).
If in his adulthood where he manifested his weakness, Jesus was recognized as king, so also in his childhood, helpless and feeble though he was, he was already known as king of the universe and its savior. The child, in other words, despite his ordinariness, is not an ordinary one. He is really a king—and more than a king, he is God among us, the Emmanuel (Matt 1:23). Which is why, although the image of a Santo Niño might appear absurd—for how can a mere child place the whole world in his hand, yet its meaning is entirely correct: God has deigned to show himself in this child of
Frail and lowly though he is, yet he is worthy of praise and worship. Small and
voiceless though he is, he is really the revelation of God. Bethlehem
How did God manifest himself in this small boy? In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 2:41-52), he is portrayed as one who was devoted to the things of God. Early in his childhood, he was already concerned about his Father’s affairs: “Why did you search for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). His first allegiance was to his Father. And it is not a simple allegiance. Luke uses the word “must” or “had to be” which, in Luke’s Gospel, characterizes Jesus’ life: “The son of man must suffer…” (9:22); “But first he must suffer many things...” (17:25}, “I must stay in your house…” (19:5), “Everything must be fulfilled...” (26:44). In the conflict of human and divine obligations, the Father’s will must prevail. No wonder, Hebrews characterizes the life of Jesus as doing the Father’s will: “Then I said, here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God (Heb 10:7). Doing the Father’s will culminates in his death, in weakness, in what appears, from the human point of view, as a defeat.
Of course, if from the beginning until his death, Jesus’ life was all about doing the will of his Father, it was not simply because he is God’s Son. As the Gospel today emphasizes, he progressed steadily in wisdom and age and grace (Luke 2:52), and that growth is to be attributed to his upbringing as well. An evidence of that upbringing is that “his parents used to go every year to
for the feast
of the Passover” (Luke 2:41). Surely, as
can be seen from the rest of the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph were deeply
religious parents. If God was able to
manifest himself in a child, in a boy who not only was deeply religious, but
whose whole concern was to do the will of his Father, it is in no small measure
due to what he received from his parents.
Which reminds us of a rhyme: “Before your child has come to seven, Teach him well the way to heaven. Better still the truth will thrive, If he knows it when he is five; Best of all if at your knee, He learns it when he’s only three.” That is the meaning of the figure of Sto Niño: the all powerful God who is king of the universe, deigned to manifest himself in a powerless little boy, who is chiefly concerned about the things of God, partly because of how his parents brought him up.