Monday, January 22, 2007

"Devotion"

This is my column today at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

THERE are legions of Filipinos who swear by the miraculous powers of the infant Jesus, locally known as the Santo Niño. In Cebu, for example, faith in the Santo Niño is so absolute that every thing that happens in the province—even the success of the recent Asean summit—is attributed to the benevolence of the little child in princely robes.

The last two weekends of January are frenzied months for Santo Niño devotees as the major festivities that pay homage to the Santo Niño are held one after the other—from the fiesta at Tondo, the Sinulog in Cebu, the Ati-atihan in Kalibo and of course to the annual exhibit and procession of Santo Niño images spearheaded by the group of fashion designers who go by the rather archaic name Congregacion del Santisimo Nombre del Niño Jesus. All these events attract droves of devotees.

The Santo Niño figures heavily in local history as in the case of the Santo Niño de Cebu (a gift to Queen Juana, wife of Rajah Humabon of Cebu when Spain started the colonization of the Philippines through the cross and the sword). In Tacloban City, where I spent most of my growing-up years, the Santo Niño, which is also the city’s patron saint, is a much-revered figure. It also figures quite prominently in the history of the city and the province.

The Santo Niño de Leyte is known in the province as Teniente. For a bit of trivia, this was the image that the former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos was seen desperately clinging to when they were kicked out of Malacañang at the height of Edsa-1. She smuggled the image out of the country! In fact, it took a number of years and a lot of pleading and begging before she finally agreed to return the “borrowed” image to the people of Tacloban. A small delegation, led by a bishop, had to go all the way to Hawaii to fetch the Teniente.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me also state that there are images of the Santo Niño in my house. Thus, I can relate with devotees of the Santo Niño on several levels. No offense meant to the devotees of the Nazarene, but I think that the image of a child Jesus is a much more empowering representation of the Catholic faith compared to the image of a suffering Christ. The myths and stories around the Santo Niño also have a distinct human interest angle in them as they usually involve some mischief (He is a child after all) and unconditional love (He is supposed to be innocent). In Tacloban, there are stories about the Teniente having been seen walking the streets of the city at night. Urban legend has it that there are days when bits of sand can be found at the image’s feet. The Santo Niño is a lovable, likeable and delightful religious icon.

This probably explains why many devotees have transformed the Santo Niño into a veritable doll, something they play around with to serve as the hapless victim of their fashion inspirations and what can only be surmised as overflowing creativity.

If there are people out there who need further proof, I encourage them to visit the annual exhibit of Santo Niño images at the PNB Financial Center along Macapagal Avenue. I visited the exhibit last Friday and I must admit that the experience was quite unsettling.

First, it was a visual overload. I have never seen so many Santo Niño images in one place. Second, some of the images were truly priceless—I am talking of images that are obviously more than a hundred years old. Some were truly exquisite works of art. And then there were the images that were bedecked with precious jewels (obviously, these were under lock and key).
But over and above the quantity and quality of the images on display, what was unsettling was the way many of the images have become victims of one or all of the following: awful fashion sense, terrible aesthetics, or unbridled enthusiasm on the part of devotees.

I am sure you have seen Santo Niño images dressed as policemen complete with nameplates (the nameplate always says Santo Niño, not Jesus Christ; which seems to indicate that some people do not seem to be aware that the image is a representation of Jesus Christ). Everytime I come across these images, I tend to check the rank they have been assigned to and always get dismayed to find a lower rank. It seems even the Santo Niño is no match to the ego of some generals who cannot be outranked. But do you know that there is a Santo Niño dressed as a NBI agent (black pants, long-sleeved shirt, baseball cap with giant NBI written on them)? Or a Santo Niño dressed as a ship captain? I am not kidding.

There were Santo Niño images made to look like a baker, carpenter, farmer, motorcycle daredevil, fireman, showman, dancer and gym instructor. It seems that while other saints have specializations, the poor child is a jack of all trades. There even was a Santo Niño dressed in a judge’s black robes, sitting next to a scale with the admonition “Tinimbang ka ngunit kulang (you’ve been weighed and found wanting).” The message could have been ominous had it not been for the fact that it is ripped off from a classic Filipino movie.

If you think the above are unusual, be warned that I haven’t gotten to the weird stuff yet. Ordinarily, a Santo Niño image would be carrying a globe on one hand and a scepter on the other. In the exhibit, some of the images carry all kinds of stuff imaginable—flowers (yes, flowers!), a bunch of grapes, a basket of fish, a lobster, a rolling pin, a farm implement, etc. I half expected to see a Santo Niño carrying a hair dryer or a grenade. Ordinarily too, a Santo Niño image would be standing upright. In the exhibit, there are Santo Niño images on a swing, on a see-saw, astride a motorcycle, reclining languorously on a sofa, etc. There is even a fully buffed (and almost nude) Santo Niño showing off those abs!

And then there were the horrendous fashion statements. Santo Niño images known as Santo Niño de Palaboy (a streetchild infant Jesus) are pretty common—they are dressed in ordinary house clothes such as shorts and tank tops. I think these images make sense.

A Santo Niño clad in ordinary clothes is more politically correct than a Santo Niño dressed in princely robes wearing a crown of jewels. I have been to homes where there is a Santo Niño de Palaboy and I’ve always wondered if the Santo Niño shares clothes with the little tykes in the house. But I wish people would simply stop there.

The occupational Santo Niños I can take, but the images dressed in Kuya Germs’ castaways are another thing. I don’t mean to be sexist, but the Santo Niño is male. Surely, dressing him up in a lime green chiffon floor-length ensemble complete with a train and a shawl, or in white lace gown with ribbons, or in flammable fabrics in the deepest lilac is over the top. Ano ba naman! The other flammable materials and outfits requiring audiences to wear sunglasses to view them are best described as fashion runway massacre. I pray that the Santo Niño has a great sense of humor and looks at this fashion sacrilege more kindly than I do.

I know that all these are reflective of the devotion for the Santo Niño and that there is no accounting for piety and for that matter, fashion sense. But perhaps it is good idea to remind people that the Santo Niño is not a doll that you can play around with. There is a thin line between devotion in the religious sense and devotion in the movie celebrity sense. It seems many people have problems making that distinction.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

Devotion to Santo Niño is idolatry pure and simple. That's why the country is cursed because of too many idols.