Xian, China is best known as the city displaying the amazing army of ancient terra cotta soldiers. But there is another sight worth seeing in that Western Chinese city of 8 million people. It is a black limestone monument 10 feet tall, 3 feet wide and weighing 2 tons. You will find it in Room No. 2 of the Xian's The Forest of Stone Monuments Museum.
What sets this stone apart from the other 3,000 in the museum is that it commemorates the earliest introduction of Christianity to China. Long before Marco Polo, long before Christopher Columbus, Christians had already come to China.
A certain Bishop Alepo, accompanied by 24 monks, arrived in this Western Chinese city around 635 A.D. Xian was already 2,000 years old when the bishop entered the gates of the 30-foot high walls of this proud city, at that time the largest city in the world. Xian lay at the eastern end of the ancient world's superhighway, the Silk Road, and all the known world was drawn to it.
Consider the task facing those first Christian emissaries. They came into a land thoroughly and completely dominated by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. They came speaking Syriac, an ancient language of the Middle East related to the Aramaic that Jesus would have spoken. They came as barbarians who still used silver and copper coinage, having no concept of paper or paper money. And yet the emperor of China, ruler over an empire far advanced over these foreigners, received and sympathetically heard the ones who "came from the land where the Lord was born."
The Nestorian Monument, as it is known, is carved with 1,900 Chinese characters and the names of 70 monks written in Syriac. Atop the monument is a cross floating above clouds and a lotus flower, both Chinese religious symbols. The monument interprets Jesus in the understanding and mentality of the Chinese:
Our Trinity became incarnate:
The Illustrious Honored-One, Messiah,
Hid away his true majesty,
And came into the world as a man,
An angel proclaimed the joy,
A virgin bore a Sage in Syria.
He hung a brilliant sun
Which scattered the regions of darkness.
Here, Jesus is described to appeal to the Chinese. The virgin bore a Sage. For 300 years these hardy Christians planted seeds deep in Chinese soil. But not deep enough, because in a time of persecution the Chinese church, at least in its visible form, disappeared. The Nestorian Stone was buried and forgotten for 800 years, to be unearthed by Chinese gravediggers in the 1600s.
In every age, the church has the joyful and sometimes arduous privilege of proclaiming the birth of the Savior of the world. Jesus, the Illustrious One, a Sage born in Syria...the words and concepts may vary slightly from Luke 2, but the story is equally amazing. An incarnate Savior is born who scatters the regions of darkness.
Contact columnist minister Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.