Among the “great cloud of witnesses” are Chinese saints

Any serious Christian would be familiar with the following Scriptural exhortation:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

–Apostle Paul (Hebrews 12:1-2)

And when we imagine this “cloud of witnesses”, we probably imagine something like:

all-saints

There’s nothing bad about the above image. In fact, it’s inspiring, and it also challenges the popular notion that the Church only honors and canonizes men… But missing for many years from my religious imagination were saints who share my ethnic identity, and images like the one above aren’t very helpful.

I am ethnically Chinese, and I am a Christian (agnostic-turned-Protestant-turned-Catholic, to be specific). For someone who once struggled to integrate these seemingly disparate identities, today was a special, symbolic day. Today marks the first day of the Chinese New Year, the year of the goat, and it also happens to be the feast day of a Chinese Catholic saint. St. Lucy Yi Zhenmei is a Chinese Roman Catholic saint from Sichuan, China. The schoolteacher was sentenced to death in the 1862 for her refusal to renounce her faith. She, along with 119 other Chinese Christians — all martyred for their ministry and faith — was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. “Today’s celebration is not the appropriate time to pass judgement on those historical periods:  this can and should be done elsewhere. Today, with this solemn proclamation of holiness, the Church intends merely to recognize that those martyrs are an example of courage and consistency to us all, and that they honour the noble Chinese people,” he said during his homily at the canonization.

It’s at once exhilarating, humbling, and encouraging  to to know that there are many faithful, heroic Chinese brothers and sisters among the “great cloud of witnesses”. My favorite part of Chinese New Year has always been gathering and feasting with extended family — and as I journey deeper and deeper into the richness of the Catholic faith, I rejoice that my family gets larger and larger with the communion of the saints!

chinesemartyrschernyak Today, Christians in China continue to face non-violent forms of oppression and repression. But it looks like there’s no stopping the spread of the Good News! As of 2010, there were reportedly 68 million Christians in China. And experts say China is on track to become the largest Christian population in the world by 2030… My heart swells with joy as I contemplate seeing multitudes of Chinese faces in heaven! 😉 ?????? chinese catholics 新年快乐!平安与你同在! 🙂 To catch a glimpse of my other travails in grasping the universality of the Church, read (and see) how art has helped me.

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Madonna and Child as Vietnamese

In continuing with my streak of alternative cultural depictions of Mary and Jesus, here is “Madonna and Child as Vietnamese”! This one was inspired by my recent trip to Vietnam, where I celebrated Christmas with my family and many faithful locals.

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“Madonna and Child as Vietnamese” by Karen Zainal

I could have gone for a more regal look, a la the famed images of Our Lady of La Vang:

ourLadyOfLavang

lavang

But I thought I’d portray a different side, focusing more on her intimate, maternal love for Jesus. At the same time, to retain that sense reverence, I deliberately left lines unfinished to convey a sense of timelessness and eternity. Let me know what you think! 🙂

Epiphany: all you need is my “amen”

I created this piece while contemplating the meaning of Epiphany, a Christian feast day that celebrates the manifestation of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, the only Son of God, and Savior of the world. The feast commemorates primarily the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus, marking His first physical manifestation to the gentiles, of which I am one.

It is recorded that the Magi brought with them gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and laid their gifts before the Child in the manger. These were expensive gifts brought by kings from faraway, and I thought about how, some thirty years later, Jesus would also accept the humble offering of five loaves and two fishes, and miraculously used it to feed thousands of hungry people.

“All He Needs Is My Amen” by Karen Zainal

I don’t have much to present before my King. But He works miracles, and all He needs is my “amen.” As the Blessed Virgin Mary once said in humble and faithful obedience:

Let it be done to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38)

Christmas: the foolishness and weakness of God

Love sometimes does strange things. It takes great risks and goes to extreme lengths that many would call foolish. On that first Christmas day, God’s foolishness was wiser than men, and His weakness was stronger than men. It took them all by surprise.

But this, of course, was part of God’s strategy. The element of surprise is critical in warfare. And Christmas was an act of warfare. In fact it was D-Day, the day of deliverance. The preparation had taken centuries, but now it was time for the Conqueror to land on enemy occupied territory. He came in humility, and would finish the conquest thirty years later by the greatest act of humility the world had ever seen.

–Marcellino D’Ambrosio

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Wishing everyone a merry Christmas from Hanoi, Vietnam!

(Pictured above: Christmas morning mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi)

The importance of non-European Christian imagery

I recently began creating non-traditional depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. And by “non-traditional”, I mean non-European. Below is an Indian and Japanese depiction respectively. I got plenty of inspiration from images I saw online, and then added my own spin. Both are hand-drawn with Micron pens.

“Madonna and Child as Indians”
“Madonna and Child as Japanese”

Just to be clear, I’m not creating these alternative cultural depictions to be gimmicky.

I have a deep, personal appreciation for such images because they have helped me better grasp the universality of our God and His plan for mankind. I am ethnically Chinese and grew up in Muslim-majority Indonesia. For years, I was subconsciously frustrated and estranged by singularly European depictions of Christian figures.

As my friend Christopher wisely said, it was healthy for Europeans to try to depict religious figures in terms familiar to their culture, but unfortunate that imperialism forced those depictions on the rest of the world.

I’m hoping to work on Chinese and Indonesian versions next, because of these cultures’ special closeness to my own heritage and identity. If you have any suggestions on other cultures you would like to see (some great suggestions I’ve received are Mongolian and Maori), do let me know!

I hope these images will be a blessing to your journey as they have been to my own. Have a wonderful Advent! 🙂

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The Zainals wish you a most blessed Advent!

“But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

I previously shared the following note on Facebook, but it is something that I also want to share with everyone who reads this blog. It’s been hinted throughout several recent posts, but never explicitly mentioned: I am on my journey towards formally entering the Catholic Church.

“About a year and a half ago, I began investigating the Catholic faith, because I had the honor of getting to know a few Catholics who made me wonder if there was more to it than what I’d heard all my life. Due to personal circumstances, this investigation fluctuated a lot in consistency in depth. But a constant theme I kept encountering was that many of my opinions on the Catholic Church were rooted in misconceptions, if not blatant falsehoods.

In more recent months, it has become increasingly clear to me that I am headed in the right direction, and that this is where God is calling me. I have recently shared this with a few people, and a few others have asked, so I thought it would be good to share: I have decided to be baptized in the Catholic Church this coming Easter.

This might come as a surprise to friends who’ve only known me from my “anti-Catholic days” (you guys know what I’m talking about…). I would be more than happy to chat and share more about the journey thus far! I don’t have answers to all the questions you might have, but I’ve learned a great deal over the past year and I’m excited to share what I do know.

I am confident that I’ve found the Church established by Christ himself — and in it I’m finding true worship, true charity, true solidarity, true humility. And wisdom that comes from above, and the hope that will not put me to shame.

I look forward to being fully initiated into the Catholic Church and the Christian life, and I’m incredibly thankful for everyone who has helped me along this journey, be it through honest conversations, challenging questions, practical guidance, and above all, prayer.

And of course, praise and glory to God, who masterfully uses the greatest joys and greatest adversities in life to lead me to Truth.

This has been the prayer of my heart, and it glows brighter and brighter as I delve further and further into the faith: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.

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Two pieces of art I’ve been working on. Both depict the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus (the left in Japanese-style, and the right in Indian-style).

Special thanks to:
Cristy Acosta, Rick Moreno, Eamon Ford, Kelly Ann Zainal, Justine Zainal, Papa & Mama, Karmyn Sindlinger, Michael Ford, Cristina Ford, Isabel Ford, Jonathan Heynen, Kelly Pudelek, Dominic Chiu, Lucas Manuel Williams-Serdan, Larry Bilello, Stephanie Burda, Tom Quiner, Connor Boyle, Chloe Pawa, Fr Peter, and Fr Thomas.