When I was growing up in Guangzhou in the 1990s, Christmas was only a foreign holiday. There weren’t decorations visible in the streets, except for lights on a few large hotels. The Pearl River runs through the heart of the city and on the north side of the river sat the American consulate. The city’s most famous hotel and the one most popular for foreign visitors was the White Swan Hotel, located adjacent to the American consulate. The White Swan Hotel always put the city’s most elaborate Christmas lights on the side of its building, which could be seen from miles away across the river. When I think of Christmas now, I still think of those Christmas lights I saw when crossing the Pearl River as a child. Now, more than ten years later, the popularity of Christmas has spread across China. This year, many of my Chinese elementary school friends posted pictures online of decorating trees in their offices. Christmas has not become an official government holiday in mainland China, but it has entered the cultural and commercial mainstream of Chinese society.
Still, the true meaning of Christmas remains elusive to many. Christmas is translated as 圣诞 (shèng dàn) in Chinese. Translated back into English, it literally means “birth of a saint,” or “birth of a sage.” Confucius has traditionally been called a 圣人 (shèng rén), with the same character. In addition, most Chinese people have heard of some of the Roman Catholic saints. On the surface, therefore, Chinese conveys the meaning that Christmas celebrates the birth of a foreign sage. A very special sage, no doubt, but nonetheless a human not unlike Confucius.
Over time, most educated Chinese people learn that Christians believe Christmas actually celebrates the birth of Christ, a man who would eventually die on the cross for the sin of mankind. When I first heard of Jesus Christ as a child in China, my first reaction was typical, “Why does he think he needs to be punished for our sin? I don’t have any sin.” In Chinese, sin is translated as 罪 (zuì), the same character for “crime.” The magnitude of incarnation did not hit me until I became a Christian many years later.
As I reflect on the meaning of Christmas now, my thoughts lead me back to China in the 1990s. Through much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a series of popular television shows, loosely based on true events, that depicted the covert journeys of ancient emperors who disguised themselves as commoners and visited different parts of the country. Their goal was to observe the lives of common citizens and to evaluate the performance of local officials. It was a way for the emperor to demonstrate his love for his people and his distaste for local injustice. Of course, the TV audience also enjoyed the humor, absurdity, and romance that often occurred along the way during these trips.
These stories usually followed a similar pattern. First, the emperor noticed something suspicious in a local area that prompted him and some of his officials to disguise themselves as wealthy merchants to visit the area. Along the way, they encountered a series of comical events and sometimes, they even got into trouble with local authorities who did not recognize their true identities. As the emperor and his officials conducted their undercover investigation, corruption was found (it was always some sort of corruption), and the local officials grew nervous and conducted a series of cover-up activities.
At the climax of the drama, the emperor always revealed his true identity. The man who had been mocked, who looked like a fool, and who seemed powerless against the corrupt local authorities was actually the one who held absolute power over the whole empire. This dramatic revelation often brought the corrupt local officials to their knees (literally), and allowed the emperor to exercise his authority to punish the bad guys and restore justice.
These comical TV dramas capture for us, in a much smaller scale, the incarnation. The Lord of the universe came into the midst of mankind as a small babe, unrecognized, and unheralded. Isaiah 53:2 tell us, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” His birth demonstrated that God is not an uncaring deity who sits far away on his throne, but rather he is the King who comes alongside his people, eats with them, and weeps with them. As the carol rings, “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” He heralds peace and healing, and he restores justice to his creation.
Yet this demonstration of love and justice does not climax with the King exercising his authority to pronounce punishment on the world; instead, he takes the punishment on himself, even from those who mock him, so that those who believe in him can be set free from the punishment they deserve. This is a divine drama with a surprise twist, and we eagerly wait for its final ending. This twist grants us the grace that we did not even dare to hope for, and therefore, we can sing with the angels, “Glory to the newborn king, peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Ryan Zhang currently lives in the Boston metro area and is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He immigrated to the United States from China in 1999.