Chinese New Year:
Sunday, 29 th January 2006

Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ
at Church of St Ignatius,Singapore

Mark 1: 21-28
Jesus curing the demonic man

Today we celebrate the fourth Sunday in ordinary time and also the Lunar New Year which is celebrated by Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese around the world. Because I do not know much about Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean culture, I will only speak of the Chinese culture today. So my homily will be a reflection on the meaning of Chinese New year for us here today.

Actually, I have to admit that I also do not know too much about Chinese culture. Some of my Chinese Jesuit brothers call me “Xiang Jiao” Jesuit, literally this means a “banana Chinese”. “Yellow” and Chinese in appearance on the outside, but “White” and westernized on the inside -- because of my education and my Christian faith upbringing. So it looks like today we have here one Chinese banana trying to address 400 other banana Chinese in the congregation.

Let us first ask ourselves, “What are the symbols and rituals that we use for our Chinese New Year celebration?” We have oranges which symbolize gold, the colour red that we see all over – our clothing, “Ang Pows” -- which symbolize prosperity, good health, success and therefore happiness. Some others even hang paper pineapples in their homes. Why? Because in Chinese pineapple is called “Ong Lai”, and this means “may good luck come to our homes”. In Chinese New Year cards too, we see lots of pictures of gold bars, again to wish people prosperity and wealth. On the first day of Chinese New Year we are not suppose to sweep the house. We even hide our brooms because brooms and sweeping are all bad luck; they will sweep out the good luck. I wonder why people do not sweep from outside into their house. We also should only speak sweet words and cannot break anything on the first day because it’s bad luck for the rest of the year. We also have the Chinese rituals is the reunion dinner where the family gathers to celebrate the reunion, the peace and the unity of the family. These are some of the many symbols we use today to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Our Lady Queen of China Cathedral, Kaoshiung, Taiwan

What about the origin of the celebration of Chinese New Year. I am not a scholar but this is what I have gathered. Thousands of years ago in mainland China, in a certain village the people work very hard. There was great harmony, great peace and happiness in the village. And during winter when the weather is cold, people will remain indoors; many would also go to the tea houses in the village to drink tea and wine in order to warm themselves. One day, a great monster struck the tea house and killed all the people in the house. However there was a little boy who was hiding under a table, saw every thing. He was so frightened of this monster that he fainted. The monster did not notice him, and killed the rest of the people in the tea house. The villagers were in a state of shock and mourning; they were very dispirited and they lost their joy and hope in life.

In the following year around the end of winter the monster struck again and killed more people in the tea house. And so people were even more frightened and shaken; they did not know what they should do. So they took up swords and arms to wait for the monster to return in order to attack and kill the monster. They waited and waited but the monster did not appear. So they went to the wise man in the village and asked him, “What shall we do?” The wise man told them, “You notice that the monster only come at the end of the winter. There’s no use waiting for the monster now. Just go home. Wait till the end of the next winter, and be prepared for his return. The monster is afraid of noise and the colour red. So when you prepare for the monster to come, bring all your red banners, bring all your gongs and drums and fire crackers. When the monster comes, beat your drums, and set off your fire cracker and that will frighten him off.”

The next winter came. The people were prepared with all their drums, fire crackers and red banners. True enough the monster appeared. The villagers beat their drums, fired their crackers, raised and waived all their banners and the monster fled in terror. The monster’s name is “Nian.” The villagers cheered in great jubilation for their victory. So the chief of the village said, “Old Nian, the monster has fled in fear and will never ever return to us. We should celebrate this great victory of our new hope. We should celebrate this new era of peace and joy and unity that we once experienced and have lost every year. This legend then is the original meaning of our celebration of Chinese New year.

What has happened to the new hope, new peace, new unity that bring happiness today? It looks like we have distorted the original meaning of what Chinese New year celebration is all about. In the symbols of oranges, gold bars, pineapples, “Ang Pows,” the use of the colour red, the prohibition of sweeping floors on the first day of Chinese New Year and the like, we have introduced symbols and rituals that are confusing and secular, narrow and focused too much on materialistic prosperity. Our celebration has focused too much on the wellbeing of the self. What about the communal unity and peace that we originally celebrated? Superstitions too have crept in because of our fear of pain, suffering and the unknown future of our lives. There also seems to be a lot of fear of pain and suffering. Thus, the need to wish people a new year without pain through the “Lo Hei” where the year would be smooth and plentiful and without obstacles. What has happened to the original meaning of the celebration of Chinese New Year?

Culture is good and important. We need culture because we are all human beings that need to express the deep rootedness of who we are. Family reunion is important, but there is a deeper meaning of the reunion. It expresses filial piety. I remember when I was young and being so excited about Chinese New year. My siblings and I, when we received “Ang Pows” from our parents, we would kneel before our parents, hold their hands, kiss their hands, wished them God’s blessing and then receive their “Ang pows”. What do we do today? Do we kneel before our parents, or you shake their hands, take the “Ang pows” and simply say “Thank you dad?” What happened to the cultural roots of our identities?

Beatutudes at
Qur Lady Queen of China Cathedral, Kaoshiung,Taiwan

Culture is good and is deeply rooted in each of us. But the deepest part of ourselves and the real meaning of who we are is found in our relationship with God. Unfortunately, in our Chinese New Year celebrations, we focus too much on our earthly life and success. As Christians, we should value culture, value all the symbols that our culture has handed down to us. But, we must Baptise the symbols of our culture, so to speak. We must bring God back into our culture, put God in the centre of our culture because at the core of our being and image is God. Let us not lose the essence of our cultural celebration as Chinese Catholic Christians. Otherwise, through a lack of awareness, we can easily turn our celebration to materialistic experiences.

Keep all the symbols that are meaningful by all means. They are essential parts of our experiences, but give the symbols a Christian meaning. Therefore, when we distribute blessed oranges after this Mass, we are not distributing symbols of gold and wealth, because they are materialistic; they are meant to symbolise God’s graces and blessings, not gold. The colour red is not about materialistic prosperity, good health, success and thus happiness. For us Chinese Christians, the colour red should symbolise joy and happiness. Why do we have joy and happiness? We have reason to be joyful and happy because we are blessed. We have Christ in our life who died and rose from the dead, who has destroyed the monsters and evil of this world, who has destroyed death and brought everlasting Light into our lives. Thus, the real meaning of the colour red is the Christian meaning of new hope. That’s why we have great joy in our hearts today. We must constantly recognize how blessed we are. God Almighty who will keep us going daily, is also giving us eternal life. He is giving us a new hope because if we should experience pain during the year, we know that He will always be there for us. God must be the centre of our Chinese New year celebration.

So when we visit families, relatives; when we wear red, exchange oranges, exchange “Ang pows,” they are more than social and family encounters and gatherings of our Chinese culture. When we wish somebody “Happy Chinese New year,” there two levels of meaning. The first level is to be aware of our need to recover the roots of the meaning of what Chinese New year celebration is about through the legend. That is, it is a celebration of the renewal of our family and communal unity, peace, forgiveness, healing of pass hurts and the like. And at the second level, it is a celebration of the deeper meaning of “Xin Nian,” a new year, a new hope and joy. Why? Because the God of the Gospel is the reason and foundation of our joy.

Mother of heaven (banner at top and poems at side) at
Qur Lady Queen of China Cathedral, Kaoshiung,Taiwan.

Last night I gave “Ang pows” to our Jesuit novices. Because we take the vow of poverty, their “Ang Pows” did not have any money in them. In the “Ang pows” were holy pictures. Holy pictures of Our Lady and child, dressed in Chinese costume, and with very beautiful Chinese wordings, (which I do not understand!)

We have to be in touch with the basic realities of ourselves when we are celebrating a feast like this. We have to be in touch also with our faith because without God we cannot find true happiness. We all know so well in our life’s experiences of materialism, (we find in all the symbols of Chinese New Year), that they can never guarantee any lasting happiness.

Today’s Responsorial Psalm says, “Oh that today listen to His voice, harden not your hearts.” Why? “Because God is the Rock and He has saved us. Have joy in your hearts. Give God thanks. Kneel before Him. Bend low. We belong to His pasture. We belong to Him.” That is the essence of what the celebration today is all about. If we are able to focus and get in touch with the deepest reason of our Chinese New year celebration, it will be the most beautiful, most meaningful family reunion we have ever experienced. Our celebration would then be a true celebration of new hope because, today, as a Christian community, as we gather here at this Eucharist, we would then be telling ourselves that we want to be renewed in our commitment to live the Christian faith to the fullest. First, to have God rooted deeply in our hearts, to bring God into our homes, and to share this love and unity with peoples in our lives, especially to those who are broken and needy in our lives. If we can do this, we can then say that we are truly celebrating the real hope and meaning of what Chinese New year is all about.

Fr Philip Heng, S.J.

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