BOOK REVIEW: In the short story, readers learn how the Chinese artist captures the wonder of Jesus’ birth – and proclaims the message of solemnity.
Written by Priscilla smith mccaffrey
Illustrated by Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Press of the Sophia Institute, 2021
64 pages, $ 17.95
In a land far away but not so long ago, Zhang Jian dreams. Not the kind of dreams when you close your eyes – Jian dreams of the past. Today an old man, the artist once master of interior glass painting remembers the Christmases of his childhood. Born in 1940 to a Catholic family in China, Jian goes back in time and remembers his parents welcoming French-Canadian priests who, lanterns in hand, sang in front of their house after midnight mass. He can almost taste snow with molasses. priest made just for children. And, imagining the interior of his home, Jian still feels the warmth of joy and good humor that had once enveloped him – and, he remembers the stories told about the child in the nursery. Those cherished and inseparable moments of Christmas and family would soon be painfully gone. The Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 changed everything the young boy once knew. Believers – among them, his parents, and the priests who had sacrificed so much to bring the news of the Savior to China – were fired, or worse. Jian neatly puts away idealized family Christmas memories – not to be shared, but to be kept safe in her heart.
Many years later, Christmas symbols inspired Jian in glassmaking. Loading her special curved brush with paint, the artist dips it through the small opening of one glass ornament after another and paints the inside. Winter wonders, inviting fireplaces, snowmen and, best of all, as far as Jian is concerned, Nativity scenes emerge and sparkle. Christmas is no longer seen as an evil cult in his country, but as an opportunity for commercial profit to meet the demands of Western customers. When his young colleagues turn to him for a better understanding of the meaning of Christmas, a cautious Jian explains it as a Western myth, a myth artists find insufficient. A child born in a humble stable who grows up to die a dishonorable death, betrayed by his own people, was not the stuff of legends, they say, despite his miracles, doing good and even raising from the dead. In Jian’s heart, he knows his Christ is so much more, but courageous words fail him.
In mid-December, the factory’s Christmas work slows down. There is no more time to ship orders west. The aging Jian, who now serves as an assistant to a new generation of artists, accepts an invitation for tea in the apartment of Lin Renshu, a factory supervisor and longtime friend. Renshu sees a change in his companion’s eyes. When asked what he thinks, Jian utters the words he has wanted to share for decades, “My Christmas, my family.” There is no going back. Tonight, Jian shares with his friend the true story of Christmas and his love for Jesus, the newborn king.
Readers follow a more confident Jian, days later, to go to confession and later travel with him to midnight mass in the very cathedral he had attended so long ago with his family and which the government allowed. to be opened for the moment. In front of the altar surrounded by plum blossoms, the flower cherished by the Chinese for its beauty and resistance, Jian humbly receives Holy Communion.
There is one more matter Jian needs to deal with. On this solemnity, he will decorate a last glass ornament, the last testament of a dying old man. With delicate brushstrokes, the artist captures the wonder of Jesus’ birth, the joy Jian found in him, and the promise of new life for those who have yet to discover it. Zhiang Jian’s last brushstrokes on this snowy Christmas day proclaim hope.
Author Priscilla Smith McCaffrey worked as a research assistant to Jesuit Father John Hardon while studying sacred doctrine at St. John’s University in New York. She now does podcasts on CatholicMediaApostolate.com. McCaffrey wrote a short story that engages readers young and old on many levels.
Illustrator Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs, a painter in the enduring tradition of Western sacred art, emboldens the news with rich red backgrounds – the color of joy in Chinese culture – that contrast with the oval-framed sketches moves the story forward. Beautiful calligraphy headers adorn each chapter, with translations appended.
This story by Zhang Jian gives readers a glimpse into how the daily lives of devotees changed dramatically after the Communist Revolution and yet how, despite oppression, Christmas continues to stir hearts.
As Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, noted in an editorial review: “In this charming novel, we remember the flavor of Christmas even during times so difficult, like those of the Cultural Revolution in China. . We should always look to the Lord, even when we are in great difficulty. He is our strength and our hope.
Kerry Crawford writes from Pittsburgh.