Lunar New Year : Gospel – Mt 5:1-12

" Cultural Symbols and Christ-centred living "

Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 3rd February 2011

I would like to begin by helping us get in touch with our cultural roots.  For this I would like us to recall briefly, the legend that is associated with our celebration of the Lunar New Year.  This legend captures the story of how our ancestors’ triumphed over an evil monstrous beast call “Nian.”  “Nian” who yearly attacked a village in China during winter where people, up until then lived in peace and harmony with one another. “Nian” would destroy all the crops and kill many of the villagers and disappear.  There was no longer peace but fear amongst the villagers who were at the same time also grieving for their loved ones.  In all these pain and suffering, the villagers knew that they had to prepare themselves to attack the monstrous beast when he next returned.

Months after months of waiting exhausted the villagers as “Nien” was never to be seen.  Finally, upon consulting an old wise man, he advised them to go back to their normal means of living as “Nien” would only return during winter. But, how should we prepare ourselves to attack “Nien” when he returns?  The old wise man said, “Nien is afraid of the colour red because red repels evil.  Also, the booming sound of gongs and fire crackers too would frighten “Nien”.  True enough when winter approached, “Nien” appeared.  Before he could attack, the villagers sounded their gongs, fired their crackers and waved their red banners.  “Nien” was terrified and fled; never to return.

There was great rejoicing amongst the villagers; “Nien” the evil monstrous beast has fled; peace and harmony has returned.  This calls for a great celebration of a new era; the celebration of “Xin Nien” which literally means “New Year.”  This legend of “Xin Nien” also explains why the colour red is now for us a symbol of happiness, peace, harmony, good health and why red is so widely used as a symbol, and why fire crackers, gongs, and fireworks are used, as they symbolise the warding off of evil spirits and all that are evil around us.


We can see that this legend of “Xin Nien” continues to influence us today.  What would have happened if I were to change the colour of our red lanterns at our Place of Gatherings to white!?  I would probably be fed to the lions in the National Zoo!  But, if I were to be stupid enough to insist that we have white lantern, I have no doubts that half if not all of you would have gone to another Parish for Mass today.  Why?  This is because culturally, white lanterns for us symbolise death and mourning; and as Chinese it would also symbolise “bad luck” and thus no way would it be acceptable on Lunar New Year’s day; a new beginning, which we hope would be filled with peace, prosperity, happiness, good health and everything that is good.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, for most of us our cultural roots are deep and they influence us more than we think.  While this reality is very important, what is also very important, if not more important is to remind ourselves that we are not just another Chinese; we are Chinese culturally, but also Christian in faith. So, unlike those who do not know Christ we as believers that Christ is our Saviour and Lord must bring ourselves to a deeper level of consciousness of what Lunar New Year celebration is all about.

It is in this context that our Lunar New Year celebration should have the Gospel of Christ as the basis and foundation of our celebrations.  By this I mean that while we do not need to discard the legend of “Xin Nien” we should draw out its meaning more fully by trying to understand it in the light of the “Beatitudes” of Jesus that we just heard proclaimed. Very simply, this means that our cultural meaning of “peace, prosperity, happiness, good health and everything that is good” for our Lunar New Year, “Xin Nien,” must be Christ-centered and not based on secular and materialistic values.

One of the reasons why we are never fully “happy and at peace” with ourselves and with others is because we worry too much about our wealth, our health, our children, and do not seem to be able to be satisfied with what we already have; we also worry about what people think of us, and also what would happen to us our future; we worry, worry, worry because we are not Christ-centered enough.

The first Beatitude in today’s Gospel tells us, “How happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  In the Old Testament, the materially poor are those who because they have nobody on earth to defend their rights, they have only have God to put their confidence.  To this meaning the Beatitudes of St Matthew’s Gospel adds in the word “spirit” thus, using the phrase “poverty of spirit.”  The “poverty of spirit” refers to our need to have a filial dependence in our relationship with God.


Very simply, this means that we are all called to have an attitude of openness to God’s intervention in our lives.  Without such openness, there will be no true peace of the Beatitudes of Christ in our lives; instead, our lives would be filled with anxieties and constant worries of all kinds that we so well know.

Fr Antony de Mello tells of a story of a monk who had a very precious begging bowl that he had used for many years.  One evening as he was meditating, he realised that there was someone lurking around; he guessed that this man probably wanted to steal his bowl. So, he immediately got up and took out his bowl and went to the man and said, are you looking for this?  You can have it; the man was shocked, but took it and left.  The monk then went back to his prayer and thought nothing about the bowl.

The next day, the man went back to the monk and asked him, “Why, did you give me the bowl?  Was it not precious to you?  It is precious to me, but you were distracting me from my prayer. If I were attached to the bowl, my life would no longer be free and not only that I would never be able to pray peacefully and in the end, I would even lose my most precious possession in my life; and that is my relationship with my God; Is my bowl more precious then my God? The man was very touched by the monk’s sense of freedom and detachment of things.  So, he returned the bowl to the monk.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, if we want to live the true happiness, peace and harmony of the Beatitudes of the “poverty of spirit” of Christ, we must then go beyond our cultural and secular understanding of happiness and peace mean.  We must learn to be less worried and more detached from the things and people that prevent us from being attached to God who is our true happiness and peace.  Jesus in Mt 6:27 says, “Can any of you, however much you worry, add a single cubit to your span of life?”


If we reflect further on the other Beatitudes, like “Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” we will begin to see how these mourners and “blessed” because in their sufferings they long to be consoled by God Himself.  If we ponder on the meaning of the Beatitude of “Happy are those who gentle, they shall have the earth for their heritage, we will also eventually be able with God’s Spirit to sense how we are called to surrender ourselves totally to God.  

We do not have time to reflect on all the Beatitudes here.  However, we can each do this on our own.  So, let me end by reminding ourselves that the deepest meaning of what our “Xin Nien” celebration is truly about is found in the Gospel of Christ, on the Beatitudes.  And if we are able to be touched by their meaning and live them, we will have no doubts this year’s “Xin Nien’s” celebration and indeed the coming months and years of our lives would be most beautiful, enriching and happiest for us.  This is God’s gift to us in Christ today as we celebrate Lunar New Year; do we want to accept His gift of true peace and true happiness in our lives?

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.


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