Monday, February 15, 2010

Would Jesus celebrate Chinese New Year?

In my post about Chinese New Year customs, I explained about some of the items people in Hong Kong buy for decorations. These objects are specifically chosen in the hope that the family’s luck will improve in the new year. There are many other superstitious practices for Chinese people to perform in the hopes of ushering in good luck and prosperity. For instance, I found out that washing your hair on New Year’s Day is considered bad, but wearing new slippers or opening windows and doors is considered good. It is also customary to pay respects to one's ancestors during this festive season by offering idols food or flowers or burning joss sticks

Some of the New Year festivities, such as the latter example, clearly contradict God’s word and are easy to avoid. However, like the Halloween dilemma, many Chinese celebratory practices might be labeled as simply “cultural traditions” and are more ambiguous about whether they are right or wrong for us as Christians to engage in. What harm could there be, say, in giving children money in red packets? Or in buying a little tangerine tree, enjoying a lion dance, watching a fireworks display, or celebrating “The Year of the Tiger”? 

Let’s consider each of these in turn...

1. In the festive spirit of wishing one another a happy new year, money-filled red packets or red envelopes are given to children or employees. They signify the transmission of good wishes and good fortune, and a great deal of effort is made in selecting new bills of the right denomination so as not to inadvertently curse the recipient with bad luck. Sometimes, the red packets are placed on altars to be blessed by idols before they are distributed. 

2. The kumquat/tangerine trees are put on display or given to someone in order to bring luck and good fortune. 

3. The traditional Chinese lion and dragon dances are performed to chase away "bad omens" and bring good luck to local business or shops. 

4. Fire crackers, while seemingly innocent in themselves, were originally intended to ward off evil spirits. 

5. “The Year of the Tiger” is part of a 12-year cycle the Chinese use for dating the years. Every year is assigned an animal name or "sign" according to the repeating cycle: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. There is a belief that the animal ruling the year in which you are born exercises a profound influence on your life. 

So would Jesus join in with the Hong Kong people celebrating their New Year festivities in these ways? Would He reciprocate their goodwill wishes or reject their practices altogether?

I’ve noted some relevant Bible verses for you to read and contemplate.

In 1 John 5:19 we read that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” Satan likes to bind people with fears and uncertainties and superstitions. But we are children of God and should be dependent only on Him, living by His word. We don't trust in superstitions or traditions. Only God knows the future; trust in Him.

As Christians during New Year and always, we are to avoid any form of religious or moral compromise. God clearly commands us not to follow pagan practices. We are told to be “in the world but not of the world” (John 17) and to “abstain from all appearances of evil” (1 Thes 5:22). “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Ancestor worship is wrong. Clearly we are not to associate ourselves with any practices that take our worship from the one true God.

Christians are not tied down to rules and laws; we have freedom in Christ. However we are still cautioned to not use our freedom to indulge our sinful nature. Rather, we should serve one another in love (Gal 5:13,14). We need to choose practices that are beneficial and constructive to ourselves and others (1 Corinthians 10:23).

It’s obvious during festivities like Chinese New Year that many people still choose to hold on to “the traditions of men" rather than the “commands of God” (Mark 7: 8). We should be prepared to be active in the community where we live but not practicing their beliefs and adopting their values. We need to show love for our non-Christian friends (Mark 12:31) as the second greatest commandment by Jesus, while avoiding placing stumbling blocks or obstacles in anyone’s way. (Rom 14:13).

I don’t want to put a dampener on all the fun activities that occur around Chinese New Year. Cultural traditions need not clash with the word of God. We just need to make a conscious effort to put God at the centre of these celebrations, as with every other aspect of our lives. We need to convey the right message to non-Christians through our participation in local customs. We need to consider how we can give red packets or tangerine trees without conveying the impression we are transmitting good fortune to recipients. We need to find tangible ways to spread the Gospel message this Chinese New Year. For instance, with regard to the “Year of the Tiger” we can tell others that we have value because of what Jesus did for us, not because of the year in which we were born. We need to ask God for help to honour Him in all we do and say. The Holy Spirit will help us discern what is irreverent, unedifying, or displeasing to God.

So I absolutely believe Jesus would keep the local traditions of feasting with his family for New Year, watching dragon dances and fireworks, exchanging orange trees, and giving children money in red packets. Jesus would be focusing entirely on the people, not the events. He would do it all in a loving way that honoured God. He would do it all while wishing the people God's blessings and peace to their homes. But I know it would sadden him how many of the Chinese New Year celebrations are earth-bound and focused on tangible success, rather than on getting to know God in a deeper way.

"Gong Xi Fa Cai" is the traditional Chinese New Year greeting we heard repeatedly today. It means "congratulations and prosperity" or “I hope you have good luck and lots of cash". As Christians we know there is more to life than riches, wealth, money, and success. The Christian life is founded on our saving relationship with Christ by faith through grace alone and not by works or wealth. So I do not wish Hong Kong people tangible or financial wealth this New Year. Instead I simply pray that 2010 will bring them closer to Jesus.

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