El Niño

Friday 25 December 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Christmas Day

As we all know, El Niño is caused by rising water temperatures in the Pacific. El Niño normally occurs around Christmas. The name means “little boy.” And what “little Boy” is celebrated at this time of year but Jesus, the Divine Child? 

The Divine Child is also known as Christkind (Austria, Belgium); Christkindle (Germany); Le Petit Jesus (France); Menino Jesus de Natal (Portugal); Babbo Natal (Italy); Jezisek (Czech Republic): Jouluvana (Estonia); Jezussek (Slovenia). 

Everyone dreams of a little snow for Christmas. When we do get a white Christmas, it’s a gift from El Niño, the weather pattern. Who cares about the weather? It’s El Niño (the Divine Child) I contemplate on this holy day. 

Perhaps the most popular El Niño image in the world is the Infant of Prague. Look at any statue of the Infant of Prague. Jesus is clearly not an Infant but a Toddler. Jesus is shown standing. Newborns and infants don’t stand on their own two feet; toddlers do (although I’ve never heard of anyone with a devotion to the “Toddler of Prague,” have you)? 

Why is Jesus shown as a child of say, two years of age, and not a newborn? The image of the Infant of Prague springs from our Church observance of the Christmas season, but it’s obviously not Baby Jesus asleep in the hay.

The Infant of Prague is an Epiphany figure. It shows Jesus receiving the Magi in audience. Jesus holds, in His left hand, a royal orb surmounted by a cross. He wears a bejeweled crown, as befits a King. His right hand, with two fingers extended in the classic fashion, bestows His Divine blessing on the visiting Magi. 

Our home and church Nativity scenes usually show a tableau with Magi, shepherds, sheep, camels, and angels gathered together at the manger in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. Two Scriptural accounts have been conflated in time and space. The birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi were, according to Biblical accounts, chronologically separate events. Liturgically, we celebrate the Nativity of the Lord one day and the Epiphany at a later date.

The two Nativity accounts combined in our manger scenes originate in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Luke speaks of shepherds and angels; he makes no reference to Magi. Matthew speaks of gifts and Magi; he does not mention shepherds. Strictly speaking, then, a Nativity scene according to Luke would have no Magi; a Nativity scene according to Matthew would have no shepherds. In order to tell the whole story of the birth of the Messiah, we simply show both scenes together. It works for us. 

There are also two clues hidden in the vocabulary used by St. Matthew. Jesus was born in a stable (or cave) in Bethlehem, but the Magi, says Matthew, arrived at “the house.” The stable was a temporary shelter for the Holy Family. That’s not where they lived. Jesus didn’t live in a barn. He lived in a house. Where was the residence of the Holy Family? That would be Nazareth. The Magi followed the star. The star came to a standstill over Nazareth. It was in the house at Nazareth, then, that the Magi found the Christ Child with Mary His mother.

And here, dear readers, is the second clue. The word Matthew uses for “child” does not mean “infant.” The word means “a weaned child” as in “toddler.” And so, after a long and convoluted journey, we, like the Magi before us, have entered the presence of El Niño. Before us stands the image of the Divine Child, Jesus of Nazareth. 

The story of the Divine Child of Prague begins with Maria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles I of Spain. Maria married Maximillian, son of Ferdinand I, monarch of the Kingdom of the Czechs. Maria brought with her to Prague a wax statue of the Child Jesus. This is the Infant of Prague. Maximillian and Maria had a daughter named Polyzena. Maria gave the statue of the Infant of Prague to Polyzena on her wedding day. Unfortunately, the Marriage failed. Polyzena re-gifted the Infant of Prague to a Carmelite monastery. Eventually, the Infant of Prague was placed in the Carmelite Church of Our Lady of Victories. Although the church is no longer under the care of the Carmelites, there the statue remains to this very day.

I once pastored a church that had been given a lovely carved wooden statue of the Infant of Prague, but the parishioners there had no particular devotion to the Divine Child. I, on the other hand, consider the Incarnation to be the bridge between God’s Salvation and all of human history. I relocated the statue of the Infant of Prague to a place of higher honor — a prominent shrine at the front entrance to the rectory. I claimed the Infant of Prague as the primary patron of the house. 

Today, as the light shines in the darkness, may the blessings of the Divine Child (whatever you choose to call Him) shine in your heart.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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