Roses are red
Of the deepest hue.
So is the flag
Of the Communist’s too.
Yesterday, I landed in China. China, land of the greatest emperors and dynasties, land of sciences and advancement. China has had one of the greatest civilizations for the longest time. It recorded its history before Europeans claimed to have discovered history and China. I was always fascinated by the prospect of coming to China, but being here hit me like a ton of bricks.
As I left the airport, everywhere I looked I could find red flags, and the ghosts of my youth came back to haunt me. In many subconscious ways, I was taught when I was young to be afraid of that red flag. It was the Communist’s flag. I’m now in a Communist country. I’m in a country that has 1.3 billion people. A country that has 56 different languages, and ironic to that fact, out of the total population of China, there are more people who speak SOME English, than there are PEOPLE in the United States.
The perception of China is intimidating. I’m now in a country which controls, what, in the United States, are considered “freedoms.” Were I a U.S. soldier, I would never want to look up and see a red flag flying above me, but here I am, and there they are. I thought I was above all that silly ideology stuff, but being under the flag of a Communist country… for the first time… well I guess I was surprised how it hit me. I still have to work through the prejudices of youth.
Today, however, celebrates the color red. It’s St. Valentine’s Day. The gift of love is often expressed in the color red, the color of the heart. It reminds me that there is always another point of view to every situation. Red can mean love just as easily as oppression.
“The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.” – William Shakespeare
But it really isn’t St. Valentine’s day, at least as far as the Church is concerned. Today’s feast day for the Saints is actually St. Cyril and Methodius. They were responsible in a large part for the spread of Christianity to the East, especially into Russia, from which Russians developed the Cyrillic alphabet.
The most important part of Mass for me today was to hear the story of Genesis about Noah and the Ark (Gen 8:6-22). This story is being looked at again and again today for two reasons that I can think of. First, because the wood of the ark parallels the wood of the cross, both leading to salvation. The connection between Noah and Christ is bearing rich fruit in theology.
Secondly, because it is also bearing much fruit in inter-religious dialogue. When asked why Catholics should even bother talking with or about other religions, this scripture passage often comes up. You have to read closely to figure out why. At the end of the story, God makes a promise to ALL mankind (since those on the Ark are the only one’s left). This God has made a covenant with ALL humans alive today and that covenant is valid to this day, whether they are Christian or not. God will never again destroy humanity. He has promised.
Of course, that wasn’t the last covenant and Christians enjoy what we believe is the fulfillment of God’s promises, but God’s covenant with humankind begins with Noah. God is involved in the salvation of his people. Very important stuff, especially when you go to cultures such as China, in which Christianity is an extreme minority. It reminds us that God has great love for all people, even those who are vastly different.
So somehow I have to get over my discomfort with this idea of a different flag hanging over my head. I visited Beitang which means the North Church. This Church is in a courtyard guarded by a gate. You have to ask the guard to let you in. It really held for me what I wanted to see in Chinese church. There were traditional Catholic elements mixed with traditional Chinese elements. Two Chinese pavilions flanking each side of the Church and all around the entrance, Chinese lions which signify the entrance of something important.
Inside the church is held a Madonna and child painted with the Madonna as a Chinese woman. We asked the guard what he thought of the image. He said that he preferred the Mary that looked more European and it was only the tourists who liked the Chinese Madonna. If you have downloaded Google Earth, you can view my pictorial of the North Church by clicking here.
I began to journey onto another church, but I as I did, a building was pointed out to me that I included in my pictorial. It is just to the south of the North Church. During the Communist Revolution in China, this building was claimed for use by the Communists. It most likely had a cross on the top, but these symbols were knocked off and never restored. Instead, the Communist star on a red background decorates the building.
I next ended up by St. Joseph’s also know as the East Church. It is near a shopping district as well as Tiananmen square. It holds a beautiful plaza in which people were free to move around, take pictures, or just sit and enjoy the day. Lovers sat by each other, and even if the Chinese culture does not emphasize St. Valentine’s Day, it was good to see couples in love. I was even lucky enough to catch a man and a woman taking pictures for their wedding while there. I also was introduced to the Chinese sign for “Catholic Church” which literally gets translated as ‘Church of the Lord of Heaven.” To see these photos in your Google Earth browser, click here.
Finally, I stopped at St. Michael’s Church. Again I noted something that is very dominant in the Chinese culture, the use of red. It was all around the altar and the sanctuary. To see the pictures I took of St. Michael’s parish, click here.
I have no Valentine this year, no one to whom I can send a love note, a big box of red chocolates, or a dozen red roses. Far from the heritage I to which I am accustomed, red here does not indicate lovers. It is the color of national pride, life, and joy. It is a color of celebration and vitality. Red belonged to the Communists, and though I was taught to fear the Communists as a young child, I cannot help but notice that here in the last strong hold of communism, (if you can even say that China is still “communist”), parents love their children just like they do in the country of my homeland. There are homes, churches, friends, and family here. There are actually people living (1.3 billion of them). What is different are merely the ideas which shape our societies, and ideas should and do fade away over time. New ideas come about along with new challenges and new circumstances. What remains are God’s promises. On St. Valentine’s day, the scriptures remind us in the story of Noah that God is our greatest lover. God loves all God’s people, no matter the color of their flag.