"True faith begins when we realize that we are in need of salvation."
Religions often speak about man’s inherent yearning for God. In realizing one’s frailties and fragilities, there always comes the desire to find deeper answers to the underlying questions of one’s purpose in life.
But this is where Christianity tells a different story of faith - that of a God searching for man. The Bible is replete of stories where God meets us in the ordinary circumstances of our human experience – in the radical obedience of Abraham, in the selfless leadership of Moses, in the humble service of David and in the unquestioning hope of Daniel.
That encounter between God and man is made fullest in Jesus - in a God who actually embracing our human condition.
Many are probably unaware, but the modern-day Western calendar is actually counted from the birth of Jesus Christ. The familiar initials, “AD” actually means “anno Domini” or in English, “the year of our Lord.”
Numbering the years in reference to significant historical events was a common practice in ancient years. In fact, the ancient Romans would mark their years as “AUC” or “ab urbe condita” – meaning, from the founding of the city of Rome. Even other religions would have their own year numbering system. The ancient Jews would count their years, “anno mundi” – from the time of the creation of the world. Buddhists count their years from the so-called “Buddhist era” which begins with the day the Buddha achieved nirvana. Hence, the Christian year 2021 actually corresponds to the Buddhist year 2564. History’s youngest monotheistic religion, Islam, reference their years from the Hijra, marking the migration of the prophet Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina. This happened in the year 622 AD. Thus, this year is counted as year 1442 AH, or “anno Hegirae”, which means “in the year of the Hijra.”
The practice of marking the years from the birth of Christ, as done in many Christian countries, is a reminder of that encounter between God and man. In Christ, God himself meets man in the plane of human existence. No longer was our humanity thought to be incapable of discerning divine truths, but our human existence itself becomes the window through which see God himself.
More than 2,000 years may have passed, this encounter between God and man continues to repeat itself every day even in our time.
What even more meaningful reminder of that encounter of faith than the widely celebrated two icons of faith in our country – the Santo Niño and the Nazareno.
Both images are depictions of the incarnate Christ. One is a suffering Christ on the way of his passion to Calvary. The other is a serene and innocent child, hidden in the trappings of secular power. The Nazarene is an image of patient suffering. The Niño is an icon of exuberant joy.
This explains our almost filial attachment to these two icons of encounter. These images mirror our own everyday life experiences – that of suffering and happiness – and beckons us to see Christ as someone who understands and shares our own grief and joy.
In a way, this echoes Christ’s own question to his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
The on-going coronavirus pandemic has made the difficult lives of many even worse. Many have lost their source of livelihood, if not their own loved ones to COVID-19. Many have begun to experience helplessness and hopelessness. Without a clear end in sight, there seems to be a lingering feeling of pain and frustration.
Then the unspoken question asked in the hearts of many, where is God in all of this?
During the Urbi et Orbi speech held in the early months of the pandemic, Pope Francis recalled the miracle of the calming of the storm at the Sea of Galilee. The disciples were already feeling worried and lost, and the boat in danger of sinking but Jesus continued to sleep at the stern.
Frantic and afraid, the disciples asked Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”
As millions of Filipinos are prevented from joining the annual observances in honor of these icons of encounter – the Santo Niño and the Nazareno - this is perhaps the unsaid prayer in the hearts of many today.
But as the Pope beautifully reminds us, true faith begins when we realize that we are in need of salvation.
In years past, we observed the feasts of the Santo Niño and the Nazareno in keeping with our yearly “panata” – rushing with the crowds of pilgrims to pay homage to incarnate Christ. This year, we might be prevented from going to Quiapo or Cebu, but this does not mean an encounter with Christ cannot happen in our hearts and in our homes.
Pope Francis assures us, “Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.”
In the Santo Niño, the child Christ meets us in an atmosphere of exuberant joy – of family, friendship and faith. The dances and revelries celebrate that of a natural and spontaneous faith, unquestioning and unrestrained by dogma or rubric – but instead relies on childlike confidence and trust.
In the Nazareno, the suffering Christ meets is in the way of hardship and loss – not at all different from the disease, poverty and injustice that continue to inflict and harm our human condition. But all these, as Christ bear for us out of love – and in the same spirit, we should carry our own and each other’s burdens.
This year marks the 500 years of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. Since the pageantry has been muted by the pandemic, it is opportune that more attention ought to be given to its historical and even spiritual significance to our journey of faith as Christian nation.
In this way, more than just a respite to our momentary worries and troubles, our encounter with Christ demands of us to bear stronger witness to our Christian faith, not in disparate and oftentimes conflicting manner of living, resulting in an open dichotomy of our spiritual and our secular lives – for every area of our lives ought to be places of encounter with God, where his love is lived and realized.
In our hearts, Christ stirs in us a desire to do something more meaningful and selfless with our lives. In our minds, he provokes us with that thirst for fullness that causes us not to settle for mediocrity or compromise. In the Santo Niño, he embraces us in our joy. In the Nazareno, he accompanies us in our suffering. These icons of encounter powerfully remind us of Christ who meets us along the way – from Bethlehem to Calvary, from Emmaus to Galilea and even in our times, in Quiapo and Cebu.