Chinese New Year Mass – Mt 6:31-34

“Happiness” – Cultural, Secular and Christian

Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 14 Feb 2010

As Christians, Lunar New Year is more than simply a cultural celebration. As Christians, we have to say that our celebration can only make sense if we find God at the core of our celebration. Let me illustrate this. At the end of this Mass, as in all our Lunar New Year celebrations in our Parish in the past years, there will be the blessing and distribution of oranges. If we take “Ignatian Spirituality” seriously and try to live it, then we have to find how God is present in this ritual.

It is not enough, simply to take our oranges home and tell ourselves that these are “blessed oranges.” This is because unless we consciously tell ourselves or reflect on the Christian meaning of the blessing ritual and the “blessed oranges” that we take with us, we may end up going home still having the secular meaning that “oranges” are symbols of the “gold” and the prosperity that the secular world longs for. As Christians, we need to be more aware that the “gold” of the blessed oranges symbolise is actually more about the choices graces that we need from God in this festive celebration.

Jesus in today’s Gospel of St Matthew precisely stresses this truth when He said, “Do not worry; do not say, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed? It is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on His Kingdom first, and on His righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own.”

Jesus’ personal message to you and me for our Lunar New Year celebration is very clear today. He does not want us to worry about the materialistic needs of our lives. Jesus is reminding you and me that our loving and compassionate Father knows all our needs. Jesus says that our focus in life should be on God’s Kingdom; His goodness and righteousness to us. Jesus is saying that if we dare to put our trust in Him, then all our needs in life will be taken care of by His Father. Do we dare to believe in this Gospel of Jesus? If we do, then we have to put this into practice daily. God must then also be the centre of our Lunar New Year celebration. This means that it is the special and choicest graces you and I need today, and not so much the material gold and prosperity of life that we really need.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, when share prices go up, when we sell our house and make a gain, when we found a very good bargain for the dress we are looking for, that’s “good news” with a small “g”. But, when we speak of our belief in the Good News of Christ that we heard proclaimed by Jesus in today’s Gospel we are referring to the “Good News” with a capital “G”. This Good News is not so much about the material gold and financial prosperity in life, but our eternal happiness with God after this life.

I know of people who are concerned about eternal life only at their death bed; sadly such views show a very minimalistic and distorted understanding of what our faith in God and the Good News is meant to be. If we want to live with God for all eternity, we must begin to live with God now in our daily lives. Our faith in God cannot be deep and cannot be serious or sincere if we only want to gain eternal salvation through the easy way, of Baptism or Confession at our death bed. It’s like someone saying, “I don’t need to love my wife and be kind to her now, but I will wait till I am on my dying bed, and then tell her I am sorry and ask for her forgiveness. Knowing my good wife, I am sure she will forgive me.

If we truly love someone, then we know that love does not work that way. Likewise, if we want to love God sincerely, then it also does not work that way. But, if we are able to love God now, in our daily lives, we can then say that our eternal life with God begins even in the here and now of this world and continues after our death.

There is another symbol in our Lunar New Year celebration that I would like us to reflect on, and that’s the symbol of the pineapple that we see hung all over Chinatown, and I hope not in our Christian homes. As far as I know, pineapple is used as a symbol of “luck”. In Chinese, Hokkien dialect, “pineapple” is called “ong lai” which sounds like “may good luck come to us.” If this is not the meaning of pineapple, then please educate me, but if I am right about the meaning of the symbol of pineapple, then I find such a symbol clashing with our Christian faith.

Our Christian faith believes in God’s providence. We believe that God who is present in our lives will always provide for our needs. Jesus in today’s Gospel tells us unequivocally and clearly that we should not worry about what we eat, drink or how we clothe ourselves. Our heavenly Father knows all our needs and if we set our hearts on God’s Kingdom, His Father will provide us with all that we needs in life.

This means that we live by God’s blessings and our trust in Him. Our lives should not be dependent on “luck.” Moreover, I associate “luck” with “Toto lottery” or casino winnings. Thus, when something good happens to us in our life we do not attribute it to luck, but God’s blessings and providence. Thus, when we are offered a good job, or when we recover from our illness because of a good doctor’s treatment, or if our children do well in their examinations and the like, we do not say, “Wah, we are so lucky?! How often do we hear ourselves and our Christian friends using such secular phrases when we speak? As Christians we should speak like a believer and behave like a follower of Christ.

As Christians who believe in God’s Providence, we should say, “We are so blessed to have this and that happen to us.” Recognising that we are blessed by God is also affirming that God is present and involved in our lives, and that in all that happens to us, they happen because it is God’s blessings that have made it possible for my child to do so well in his examinations, and certainly not because we are so lucky. And so, if we have paper pineapple hung all over our homes, as believing Christians, I think we should know what we should do with them! Put them where they belong. Hang them outside the casinos!

In this homily reflection on our Lunar New Year celebration, I would like to highlight one more point. I believe it is good for us to reflect further on how as Christians, while we should cherish our rich cultural traditions and pass these down to our children, it is also good that we be more fully aware of how the secular values of material prosperity in gold and good luck can seep into our cultural practices and create a conflict with our Christian faith.

If we reflect on these secular symbols and cultural rituals more carefully, we will begin to see that certain cultural practices like not sweeping our floors on the first day of the Lunar New Year because that would sweep away the good luck in our family are actually superstitions. While many of us may be aware that such practices are superstitious, many still do not dare to stop practicing them because we are afraid that just in case something bad may happen to us. So, if someone happens to cut his finger, the immediate remark would be, “There! I told you not to sweep the floor?!”

My sisters and brothers in Christ, let me conclude by saying that superstitions are built on fears and threats that if we do not follow them, something bad may happen to us; chain letters play on similar human emotions. Luck on the other hand plays up on our fantasy that if we were to have many such superstitious symbols, then we may just be lucky one day and become prosperous some day. Such false hopes are illusions that will certainly cause disillusionment in our lives one day. We have to “get real” so to speak. Instead of living a life that is built on superstitions and thus fear and fantasy, our daily living as Christians should be built on faith and fidelity of the Good News of Jesus that gives us true happiness in this life and eternal happiness in the next life.

Fr Philip Heng, S.J.

visitors since 18 February 2010

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