Mabuhay! Today in the Philippines we celebrate the Feast of the Santo Nino. Many Filipinos do not consider the Christmas season over until the feast of the baby Jesus. The Holy See has approved special liturgical texts for use during the local Feast of the Santo Nino in the Philippines, set on the third Sunday of January after the Feast of the Epiphany. Churches nationwide prepare for the Novena, procession and other activities to celebrate the feast of the Santo Nino.
One of the stories about the Santo Nino started when Magellan landed on Cebu on April 7, 1521. Magellan's group planted a wooden cross that began the Christianization of the archipelago. Forty-four years later, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi arrived in Cebu as a follow-up on the Magellan expedition. The Spaniards engaged in a warfare with the natives - with disastrous results. Cebu was set on fire. Legaspi and his soldiers tried to put out the fire. They found in an empty house a wooden box, in which the statue of the Holy Infant was found relatively unscathed. The statue had been given by Queen Juanato to the King of Cebu at the time of Magellan. The finding of the statue on April 28, 1565 marks the official Christianization of the Philippines. Devotion to the Holy Child spread, and a church has since been built to house the much-loved statue.
The first novena to the Santo Nino was introduced in 1889. Today, the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino in Cebu is an important historical and religious landmark in the Philippines, with devotees forming long queues to pay their respects to the Holy Child.
In today's reading, people were bringing children to Jesus, hoping that he would bless them. The disciples however rebuked those people. When Jesus saw this, he became indignant and said, "Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it." Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them (Mark 10:13-16).
Who are these children? Jesus frequently used children to symbolize the Reign of God (e.g. Mark 9:33-37, 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17, Matthew 18:1-5). Why were children important to him? Although children were valued and love, they had very little status within the family, and the society in the culture of Jesus. A minor was no more than a slave and only after reaching maturity was he/she a person with rights. Children in the eyes of society were not a priority. They had no status, power, title and position. Children were considered a property of the male head of the household. Children should be seen and not heard. When the disciples tried to stop the people from bringing the children to Jesus, perhaps they were worried that Jesus would be wasting his precious time on members of society who were powerless and had no social standing. Maybe, the disciples were thinking that Jesus had more important things to do and had more important people waiting to see him. But Jesus saw things differently. Together with the widows, the poor, the sick, the outcasts, the excluded and the marginalized, children were important to Jesus because they were God's "anawin" or "the little ones."
This Gospel passage is another instance where Jesus expressed anger in word and in deed. He finds injustice and discrimination in all shapes and forms intolerable. Jesus rebuked and scolded the adults around him and said, "Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (Mark 10:14) Jesus is telling us that what is important in God's eyes are the "little ones" - not the powerful and the rich.
Children by nature are inquisitive. They are curious, observant, interested, honest, trusting, forgiving and daring. Their common questions are "Why?" and "Why not?" Children are not afraid to experiment and try something new. Children are not passive observers but rather they always like to be active participants. They are full of energy and enthusiasm. They want to be engaged. Perhaps that is one reason why Jesus said, "Whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it." We, Christians tend to stay within our comfort zones. Our religion and religious practices become individualistic and private. We stay away from any communal undertakings and social justice engagements. We don't dare to ask the questions like "Why and Why not?" Jesus on the other hand invites us to be active participants in the Mission of God. We are called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9, Mark 9:50) and to be forgiving to one another (Matthew 6) - responding to his call to love our neighbors and our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). Christians are called to active participation in the world. Like the children we are called to be curious seekers about the Reign of God and how we can take part in spreading that Reign.
In Taiwan, we can say that migrants - especially domestic helpers and caregivers - are among God's "anawin" or "little ones." They are not covered and protected by Taiwan's Labor Standards Act. They are "visible and not heard." The right to have a "day of rest" and the "right to practice, worship and observe your own religion" are basic human rights enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and adhered to by any democratic government.
Everyday, I receive either a call or a text message from a distressed migrant asking for help and prayers. The worker is either enduring tough employment conditions or subjected to abusive labor practices. Most of the time, their pleas are quite simple and reasonable: A day off, the opportunity to hear Mass, or to reduce their workload. Here's one text message that I received last week:
"Father Joy, good evening. I have gotten to know you through the Taiwan News. I discovered your joy to the World' column on January 1. Your article has inspired me much! I'm also glad that you have disclosed your cell phone number. I am Rochelle. Father, I am humbly asking for your help. Please include me in your prayers. I hope God will grant me patience. I have three employers and two elderly patients who both need 24-hour care. I have been working here for almost eight months. Taiwan is my first overseas posting. I have no day off. How I wish I could attend Mass on my day off - if my employers would ever grant me that. I also wish I will be able to finish my contract. Thank you Father and Happy New Year!"
(To be continued next Sunday)