Friday, February 8, 2013

Chinese New Year Celebration & Lent

At the risk of proving my limitations, this weekend’s and next week’s events deserve reflection. Not only is Chinese New Year a major celebration, but for many Christians the week will be marked by Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Season of Lent, which leads to Easter. The fine thing about these two events – one cultural, one religious – is that they both draw on the notions of something starting anew, something cultivating hope, something that celebrates a cycle of life that lies ahead.

Chinese New Year is largely a mystery to me because it lies entirely outside of my cultural experience, visits to San Francisco’s Chinatown non-withstanding. But in my short time here in Singapore, I’ve learned a bit about the significance of the lunar New Year in Chinese culture. Just today I was told that the reason for the gifts of oranges is because they are sweet and are colored like gold, symbolizing prosperity and success. And it’s very clear to anyone walking around on Orchard Road or anywhere else that the colors of red and gold are colors of celebration. Family, food, and festivities are the order of the day. One person even tried to be helpful to me by comparing CNY to Thanksgiving in the U.S. It’s not the same thing, but I appreciate the reference.

What stands out to me is that Chinese New Year embodies and lives out the real priorities of our lives. As people go to their reunion dinners, whether at home (7-11 advertised some 88 dishes available for catering) or in a restaurant (nothing can now be booked from coast to coast), with batch-mates or friends or family, they reconnect with the people and the food that shouts “home” with fire-cracker clarity. As the American poet, Robert Frost, wrote:  “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” We might add, “especially on Chinese New Year.”

Lent should be a similar experience of newness, of recollection of the importance things, of the coming spring. In Dutch, the word “lente” means the season of spring. It’s a time of personal renewal, an anticipation of the good things to come, a season of hope. In this case, it is something directed to the specific religious celebration of Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, which is seen as the best darn thing to ever hope for. In very deep and significant ways, Lent and Chinese New Year both share in the life and potential life that are part of the season of spring.

One of my favorite writers highlights the positive aspects of Lent: “Contrary to what many think or feel, Lent is a time of joy. It is a time when we come back to life. It is a time when we shake off what is bad and dead in us in order to become able to live, to live with all the vastness, all the depth, and all the intensity to which we are called. Unless we understand this quality of joy in Lent, we will make of it a monstrous caricature, a time when in God's own name we make our life a misery.” (Anthony Bloom)

For those of you who will go to church next Wednesday in order to have ashes placed on your forehead, reminded that no one of us gets out of this world alive, know that Lent is a season of hope, not despair; of life, not death. It is a time that invites prayer, penitence, and almsgiving. This simply means that it is an opportunity to pay a little more attention to God, to pay a little more attention to things we could do better, and to pay a little more attention to others. Also note that fasting during Lent is a not a dieting plan. There’s more going on.

And if you find oranges in the church, or if you discover that the color red is rather ubiquitous around the building, consider it all as part of the general festivities. Life abounds.