Childhood plays an important role in shaping our lives. Traumatic childhood events can lead to developmental and psychotic disorders in adults. Meanwhile, children who have fond memories of their youth tend to have better health and fewer chronic psychological illnesses when they grow up.
On this feast day of the Santo Niño, we can ask, “How was Jesus as a child?” Did He have a happy childhood?
There are some ancient manuscripts which provide information about Jesus’s childhood, like “The Infancy Gospel of James,” “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” and the “First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ.” But the Church does not give credence to these so-called “infancy gospels” because these were written about 200 years after Jesus’s death. Most of these contain outlandish stories which depict Jesus as a naughty, vindictive, and small superman who used His awesome powers to get what He wanted.
None of Jesus’s contemporaries wrote extensively about His childhood because He must have lived like any ordinary child, doing things that hardly attracted attention. In today’s Gospel reading, St. Luke writes: “Jesus went down to Nazareth with his parents and was subject to them… And He grew in wisdom, stature, and favour with God and man” (Luke 2:51-52). Such a laconic description of His youth says very little about Him.
I would like to think that, being God, He must have spent His childhood learning what it means to be human. He wanted very much to be like us, so He must have exposed Himself to everything that would help Him understand what makes us jump for excitement, scream in fear, or cry in our pillows at night. As a human being, He was vulnerable to sickness, sorrow, trials, problems, and other unwanted but necessary components of life. He must have learned the hard way why joy cannot be appreciated without pain; why, despite our basic goodness, we commit unspeakable crimes against one another; and why forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance.
Above all, like any ordinary child, He must have played and laughed. He must have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins describes as “the dearest freshness deep down things.” He must have listened and paid attention like one who has not yet learned to limit his gaze on what is practical, functional, or useful. He must have experienced everything with a sense of wonder and reverence.
I have often wondered why the image of the “Santo Niño” is adorned with a crown and all the trappings of royalty and power. It doesn’t look like a child, but a miniature Christ the King. Worse, many Filipinos treat the “Santo Niño” like dolls, which they dress up according to whim and fancy, parading these during “Ati-atihan” festivals like an “anito.”
I would rather venerate the image of the “Santo Niño as an ordinary child, exuding nothing but simplicity, humility, and loving acceptance of His frail humanity. This can remind us of the childhood virtues that we have lost in our haste to be considered wise and mature by worldly standards.
Let us pray that we — especially the youth, who were initiated too early by the social and communications media to look for a work to do, a problem to solve, a button to push, a video game to play, a text message to send or read, and a selfie to like or to share — may somehow learn to revive our childlike sense of wonder and surprise, recognize the image of the divine Child imprinted in our souls, and retrieve the grandeur and dignity of being human — too real for tears, hatred, and violence to eradicate.