By Rev. Dr Ji Zhang, Assembly Theologian-in-Residence
Each Christmas I am reminded of two things: my journey to Australia as a migrant and a bible translation “the Dao Became Flesh”.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of my arrival in Australia. I have always remembered the deep blue sky, which I had never seen in my life, when I exited the airport that morning. I came as a language student with one suitcase, a half-year visa, and $110 (USD) in my pocket. In the following weeks, I stepped into Brunswick Uniting Church for my first Christmas. Even though I had never been to a church service, I felt a homecoming. The music and hymns were so familiar as if I had encountered them previously.
For a migrant, Christmas may not be a festival, but rather a challenging experience. In my early years in Australia I worked in restaurants and factories. When I washed dishes for Christmas parties, I felt lonely as other families gathered. But the Uniting Church was my home away from home. I became a Christian in Pascoe Vale Uniting Church, and then went on to study theology. I traveled to America and Europe and spent time in China during my postgraduate studies. Finally, I decided to return to Australia and became a Uniting Church minister. When my children were born, they helped me to put down my roots in this land.
Christmas reminds me that Jesus was a migrant. When Jesus was born, his family did not have a room or a bed (Luke 2:7). Later the family escaped the politic unrest and went on a long journey to seek safety in Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-14). Jesus’ family lived as displaced people in a foreign land. They did not return to the birthplace of Jesus, but to a rural community in Galilee where Joseph once lived (Luke 2: 4).
Later Jesus preached the Good News of God’s coming Kingdom (Mark 1:1) and healed people in the margins of society, so they followed him. After his death and resurrection, the Gospel was preached first by the disciples, and then the Christian faith was spread mainly by migrants, some travelled as merchants and some engaged in mission. Without migrants there would not be world-wide Christianity today.
The history of Christianity in Asia often traces its early roots to the Church of the East. The Gospel was brought to China by merchants and migrants during the Tang Dynasty. They lived there for two generations before the formal mission. Then Christianity spread to Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. In 781AD, the Nestorian Stele has recorded an early story of Christmas in Asian language. “By hiding his true majesty, [Christ] came to earth in the likeness of man against the background where angelic beings and heavens jointly proclaim the cosmic festivity.”
The Chinese translation “the Dao Became Flesh” derives from ancient Daoism. The Dao, the origin of the world, has become (or fulfilled) the flesh and the body. When the human body becomes an empty vessel to harbor the Dao, the sage attains immortal life by returning to the origin of the universe. Like the Orthodox traditions, Christmas is not only about Incarnation, but also Creation.
The story of Incarnation here is preceded by a movement of God. It reads: “於是我三一分身, our Three-in-One separates the body”. It gives people a remarkable understanding of how “the Dao became flesh” happened. The arrival of the Christ child is the result of the inner life of the Trinity manifested outwardly in the world. The point here is simple yet profound. The birth of Christ and the birth of the universe are only different in degree, but of the same in kind.
The “Dao became flesh” is a paradox about who is the outsider and the insider. In the biblical context, the birth of Jesus is explained as an unexpected gift to the outsiders and the lowly. For the wise men in the East, it came as a revelation. Three Persian alchemists observed the rising star during their astronomical studies (Matthew 2: 1-2). For the shepherds in the field, it came as a gentle greeting: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2: 10). God’s own life in this world is small and gentle, yet kindles hopes and dreams endless in nature.
The “Dao became flesh” is about journey with the Spirit. The wise men followed the star and went to the West. They went to discover the cosmic order personified in the little town of Bethlehem (Matthew 2: 9). The humble shepherds left their pasture behind and they too discovered a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. In that silent night, at the end of two separate journeys, the wise and the uneducated came to the same place. And they saw the glory of God.
The “Dao became flesh” is God’s new life. God did not overwhelm us with power. Instead the Creator of the universe comes to us in the form of this infant life – sleeping in the arms of Mary (Matthew 2: 11). Infant life is the beginning that we all share. Life at its very beginning is pure, simple, and elegant. It is full of potency. When we come face-to-face with this gentle life, we are confronted by the gentle Grace of God. The Creator enters into human life and communicates to us without words, but with a perpetual presentation. The child is the visible image of the invisible God.
The “Dao became flesh” did not only happen in the past, but it happens each year in the heart of every Christian. As a member of 135 churches within the World Council of Churches, the Uniting Church celebrates this Christmas within the universal Body of Christ. We are located in the Asia-Pacific Region where Christianity is growing the fastest. This Christmas, when we recollect one of the most enduring stories in human history, may we also treasure the story in cross-cultural context. God is a cross-cultural God.
May we observe signs of the natural world like the Magi, who followed the omens to discover the glory of God as did the shepherds. Let us also sing praises – once more – to the glory of God with heavenly beings. “The Dao became flesh” is about the Creator becoming a created. God has crossed the boundary between God and humanity and lived among us.
Merry Christmas to you and your family.