God's Language is Compassion
The Meaning of Christmas in China
Christmas is a time when Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus. I am among them. We carry within our hearts and minds the image of an infant, tender and mild, lying in a manger or being held by his mother, Mary. We believe that God was revealed in this infant and his relationships with his mother.
Recently this website received a message from a friend in China asking about the religious side of Christmas. There are many Christians in China, and soon it will have more Christians than any nation on earth. Christianity is no longer a Western religion. It is a world religion the vitality of which lies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
But my own friend is officially non-religious. He is a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and as a member of the Party he is not permitted to belong to a religion. He is also a very good and kind person, and I have grown to see a good side of the Chinese Communist Party through him. I know that the Party does some very good things; and I myself hope that in time the Party can freely welcome people who are religious into its fold. I think the Party would benefit tremendously. We might call it the Greening of Communism. But that time has not yet come. I offer this reflection for him, as a brief reflection on the Christian side of Christmas. I find Christ in him all the time, in his kindness and sincerity, his goodness and his struggles. He is a great hope for China and for the world.
The God of Small Places
For many Christians, the image of Jesus in a manger provides us with an opportunity to appreciate what the webmaster, Vivian Dong from China, calls "the tiny God." GO The tiny God is the God who is seen in the small places in life, especially in the eyes of vulnerable people. Of course there is beauty in the galactic, too. When we gaze into the heavens on a dark and starry night, we feel small but included in a deeper mystery; and rightly so. But somehow, at Christmas, Christians are reminded that the galactic is found not only the sky but also in the small, as exemplified in the Christ child, lying in his mother's arms, sleeping in heavenly peace. The poet William Blake invites us to see heaven in a wildflower. Christians see heaven in sleeping infants, too.
The Burden of the Gigantic
For many people the image of Jesus and his mother also brings relief from the burden of the gigantic. By the burden of the gigantic I mean the burden of thinking that everything has to be big to be important. We live in a world that is preoccupied with bigness: big money, big houses, big people, big corporations, big egos. There is something immature about a preoccupation with bigness. The psychological drive behind this preoccupation is like that of a teenager playing basketball. He thinks that is someone is to win, other people must lose. The image of a small child in a manger is an invitation to grow up, to move past the burden of the gigantic and pretentious, to become wise and gentle, trustful in the God of small things.
Turning the Ladder on Its Side
The baby Jesus also brings a reconsideration of what it means to be pure. One of the banes of religion is that, so often, it associates purity with cleanliness and then divides the world into two kinds of people: clean people and unclean people. Clean people are righteous, upstanding, respected, and moral. Unclean people are the others.
Jesus was an other. He was born in a stable, with animals and human odors, with a mother who was probably condemned by others for having a child out of wedlock, with a family that had little money. By many measures he was not from a "good" family. He did not really live an acceptable life, either. He associated with the wrong kind of people: prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, widows. He was remarkable in the fact that, in a very patriarchal society, he was indebted to women who helped him understand his own calling. And he was very intolerant of rich and powerful people.
Thus the image of Jesus in a manger invites an open-hearted approach to life: an approach that is not preoccupied with questions of purity and power. Imagine a social ladder on which some people are allegedly above others, because they are wealthier, or more powerful, or have more authority. Jesus turned the ladder on its side and said that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
Joy to the World
And then there's the joy. Those of us who are Christian love to sing the songs of Christmas, the religious ones and (at least for me) the secular ones. It's hard to separate Christmas from music, and somehow the music is part of the joy. Perhaps Christmas music began with the music began with the cooing of Mary into Jesus' ear, singing him a lullaby to help him sleep. It would not have sounded "Christian," though. Mary was Jewish. So was Joseph. So was Jesus. Mary knew the sounds that would make her baby feel comfortable.
Where did her sounds come from? Obviously they came from her heartfelt love for the infant in her arms. But they also came from a living silence deeper than her heart, that is within us and around us and beyond us all the time. This living silence is described as a cosmic or universal Logos or Wisdom that existed along with God from the very beginning. Some people might think this Wisom took the form of a human language: Arabic or Hebrew, Chinese or Spanish, English or Swahili. But Christians believe that the Wisdom while communicative, is much deeper than any finite language. It is Love. This Love is God.
Those of us in the JJB community feel God is like a deep Womb -- an inclusive receptacle -- in whose life we live and move and have our being. God is profoundly receptive, sharing in the joys and sorrows of all living beings, all the time. And God is continuously responsive to the joys and sorrows, providing each living being with fresh possibilities for taking a next step in life. God's language is not English or Chinese. It is compassion.
Christians believe that this compassion was revealed beautifully but not exclusively in a small infant lying in a manger on a silent and holy night. It was likewise revealed in his mother, as she whispered words of wisdom in his hear. In her whispering and in his sleep, there was a kind of joy. We feel it, too, when we approach the manger with open hearts. We feel it, too, when our heart become mangers that cradle the world in love. Whenever this happens, the Love at the heart of the universe is revealed in its splendor, small and beautiful, like a baby lying in a manger. These feelings do not belong to Christians alone. They belong to everybody. Merry Christmas.