I remember vividly a painting on the wall of the Sunday School room at the Church I attended whilst at university. It presented a Jesus with translucent white skin surrounded by children of the Empire. This is one of the challenges Christian missionaries have traditionally encountered in China, and no doubt many other countries; the perception that Christianity is a Western idea, just for Westerners.
In some ways, as Western goods and products become coveted goods in China, this challenge is being transformed into a blessing as more and more—especially young—people are attracted into churches by this very perception. The Church I attend in Wuhan holds a weekly English-language service, which is attended mostly by Chinese people and is followed by an English Corner, which attracts people who are not Christian and openly declare they are not interested in exploring faith, but come merely to practice English.
One of the most exciting ways of challenging this perception of Jesus I have encountered recently is through art and the Chinese-born artist He Qi (pronounced Huh Chee). His paintings are full of joy and humour and draw inspiration from traditional Chinese art forms. He says he takes particular inspiration from the simple and beautiful art of the rural people of China and from traditional Buddhist artwork. According to his website, ‘He hopes to help change the 'foreign image' of Christianity in China by using artistic language, and, at the same time, to supplement Chinese art the way Buddhist art did in ancient times’.
His story seems as inspirational as his art work. He describes how growing up during the Cultural Revolution he was sent to a communal farm to un-do the ‘negative effects’ of his parent’s intellectual careers by hard labour. He escaped from this by entering, and winning, a competition to paint a portrait of Chairman Mao—the beginning of his career in art.
As we enter the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, his painting Adoration of the Magi, painted in 2001, gives a new perspective on this integral aspect of the Christmas story. The painting draws on the traditions of the Western Church, such as showing three wise men, but also on the symbolism and colours indicative of Beijing Opera.
People’s interest in the Epiphany down the years has added many facets and insights to the story that are not in the biblical account. Once the magi arrive at Jesus’ location, we are told the scantest details without comment:
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (NIV, St. Matthew Ch. 2, vs. 11)
An unspecified number of wise men have become three kings and the gifts they brought have been given defined meanings: gold ‘for a king,’ frankincense ‘for God,’ and myrrh as a sign of suffering and death. This has become a kind of fact.
Early Christian thinkers seem to have had a variety of different interpretations of what these symbols meant. Just as He Qi’s painting is trying to change Chinese perceptions of Christianity, perhaps his new perspective on the magi can also help us to lay aside our ‘We Three Kings’ concept for a few moments and to think more widely about what the symbolism of these symbols was.
The Chinese Church seems to stress the importance of the Old Testament concept of tithing and often sermons in the Church I attend remind the congregation of the need to tithe, giving ten percent of all income away,—some might wonder if this is a helpful message for a congregation of people exploring faith for the first time, mostly made up of the poorly paid and students.
Just as we may struggle to buy Christmas gifts for a relative who seems to have everything they need, the gifts the magi brought, expensive as they were, seem insignificant gifts to give to a God who created all things and to offer before the greatest gift we have been given—Jesus. In his account, St. Matthew tells us they bowed down, worshipped Jesus and then opened their treasures.
One perspective on these gifts would be that the magi are offering to God the instruments they use in their divinations, and with them their jobs, their work and even their belief systems. What is important is not the value or use of what they offer (as in our traditional understanding of this tale), but what is meant by this giving. By this interpretation, what we offer God should not be limited to a tithe of what we have but perhaps the actions of the wise men act as a symbol, a reminder, to offer everything—our words, our worship, our singing, our dancing, our liturgy, our church buildings, every penny we spend, our lives, all we are—to God.
St. Bruno, an eleventh-century Italian Benedictine abbot (not to be confused with the patron saint of tobacconists!) saw gold, frankincense and myrrh as the offering of our wisdom, prayer and lives. He said, ‘Thus, we offer the Lord gold when we shine in his sight with the light of heavenly wisdom. We offer him frankincense when we send up pure prayer before him, and myrrh when, mortifying our flesh with its vices and passions and by self-control, we carry the cross behind Jesus.’
The great theme of Epiphany is how, for the first time, Jesus was revealed to the gentiles—non-Jews—and perhaps for each of us Epiphany can offer a different revelation. There needs to be no limit to how we offer ourselves to God—it’s not all about expensive gifts offered publicly to God.
For some people, yes, this might be offering money and riches to be used for service to others. For some it might be giving our time to a friend or family member who needs our care. For some it might be offering service to the community or to the stranger. For others it might be offering our intellect, our profession or artistic skills. Some might open their home and possessions for others to use. And for yet others it might be about offering prayer and meditation to God.
One of the joys of living in another culture is the different perspectives it can give one on everyday objects, occurrences and activities. He Qi’s artwork can help us all experience a new perspective on Christmas and Epiphany.
Blog posts written by the Minister and Members of Frodsham Methodist Church.