Wednesday, January 31, 2024
*This article is an updated version of the original article which was published in January 2023.
Jesus Christ once challenged those who intended to follow him with 2 considerations: to prepare for detachment from personal possessions and to act immediately.
Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” -Matthew 8:19-22
What does this look like for Chinese Christians in the context of celebrating Lunar New Year?
Gospel & Discipleship in a Cultural Context
The redemption of God was communicated in the Old Testament through the lens of Jewish or Near Eastern cultures, even though it was intended for the universal recipients articulated in the ancient covenant with Abram.1 When the Son of God entered human history as Jesus of Nazareth, the message of salvation for all nations materialized.
This message of salvation is for all nations and all cultures. Even so, the gospel needs to be understood in a particular cultural context. It is vital that we use culture as a platform to the gospel, instead of letting culture be a barrier to the gospel.
Let’s look at the tradition of how Chinese celebrate Lunar New Year to reflect on this issue.
Meaning of Lunar New Year
According to Chinese folklore, the word “year” in Chinese is “nian”, a monster that appeared sporadically to devour and destroy village lives. As each year ends, there is much to celebrate - congratulating each other for passing through the year (surviving the monster nian).
And after survival comes the higher wishes of peace and prosperity.
Prosperity: In an ancient Chinese society of agriculture, prosperity was evident in the harvest of crops or the multiplication of animals. In today’s context, prosperity is viewed as an increase in financial assets (rise of property values, stock growth, etc.) Prosperity could also mean success in personal gains, for example: taking advantage of buy-low-sell-high financial investments; high profit in business; or reaping the most benefits, even at the expense of others. Prosperity also refers to achievements in academics, gaining popularity or fame, and work performance.
Peace: Peace means personal integrity of good health, family harmony, and safety, although to some, it means resolution of geopolitical conflicts.
Lunar New Year Practices & Traditions
Many of the practices and traditions of Lunar New Year focus on how to bring peace and prosperity.
The Evangelical Times article: “Chinese new year – a Christian perspective”, written by Jack Sin, expands on many of the common practices and traditions of Lunar New Year. You can read more in-depth explanations about these traditions and practices in that article, but here is a brief summary of some of these traditions:
- Astrology & Zodiac: The Chinese zodiac is based on the lunar calendar and “each year in the repeating zodiac cycle of 12 years is represented by a zodiac animal, each with its own reputed attributes.”2 This year, Lunar New Year begins on February 10, 2024, which marks the beginning of the Year of the Dragon.
“Astrology…claims to predict what will happen to people, countries, economic trends, conflicts and much more…There is a superstitious belief that the animal ruling a person’s birth year exercises a profound influence on his or her life.” 3 --Jack Sin
- Greetings: A common way to greet others for Chinese Lunar New Year is “Gong Xi Fa Cai”- it literately means to congratulate other people to get rich or "wishing you prosperity and wealth."
- Red Packets: For Lunar New Year, red envelopes which contain money, are given to children by grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles. The red color of the packet indicates energy, happiness, and good luck. For the recipients of the packets, there is always the monetary gain, but for the givers, it means blessings to them as they give away money in this manner.
- House Cleaning: On the first day of the Lunar New Year, people do not sweep their house because they are superstitious that it will “sweep out the prosperity and the good luck for the year”.4
- Lion & Dragon Dance: Another tradition is the lion and dragon dance, which is thought to “chase away the ‘bad omen’ in businesses or shops”5.
- Firecrackers: Another common practice is setting off firecrackers – “which by tradition is intended to ward off the evil monster ‘nian’ ”.6
How should God’s Redeemed People Approach the Cultural Practices of Lunar New Year?
No one declines blessings.
It is a matter of the source and temporary nature of the blessings that requires careful discernment.
Blessings (according to the culture of Lunar New Year)
The celebration of Lunar New Year by the Chinese focuses on peace in personal safety as well as prosperity in personal gains in life. Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging the Creator God as the universal benefactor, the hope is shifted to rely on created celestial patterns and other deified characters, as we see in the Chinese Zodiac.
The lack of certainty of life purpose and the fear of unexpected plight both lead to the practice of many superstitious behaviors like lighting firecrackers, performing the lion and dragon dance, and the taboo of sweeping the house on New Year’s Day or saying things that induce bad omen.
Blessings (according to the culture of Jesus)
In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches blessings with a very different framework - as a culture for the community that is redeemed by God’s grace. This is a culture that acknowledges the total sovereignty of God and the reliance of the Holy Spirit.
Blessed are those who yield control of their life to the Holy Spirit, instead of relentlessly pursuing personal success and glory.
Blessed are those who are constantly vigilant and mournful of their shortcomings, instead of justifying the mistakes they make and denying responsibility for any offence to God and others.
Blessed are those who are meek in character and always considering others, instead of pursuing their own self-interests.
Blessed are those who always pursue righteousness through knowing the truth, instead of believing in false and superstitious beliefs.
Blessed are those who are merciful and gracious to others, instead of competing and even exploiting others for the sake of personal gain.
Blessed are those who are pure in heart with no hidden agenda, instead of preying on others to deprive them of their interests.
Blessed are those who are peacemakers through actions of love and reconciliation, instead of being a peace-lover with their lips but unwilling to sacrifice in order to mend broken relationships.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness and willing to sacrifice for revealing the truth, instead of going with the flow just to protect personal safety.
As a follower of Christ from a Chinese cultural background, I would gladly adopt and practice the festive celebration of the Lunar New Year, participating in traditions such as visiting relatives, exchanging gifts and greetings, giving red packets to children and wishing blessings and peace to extended family, friends and neighbours.
However, I would tweak the meaning of many practices that are rooted in fear and personal gain because I am assured of the purpose and sovereignty of my life by the author of all blessings, the Creator God who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ! (Ephesians 1:3b)
1 Genesis 12:3
Alfred Chui practiced physical therapy for over 25 years before he joined North Edmonton Alliance Church in 2009, first as the English Pastor & then in 2013 as the Senior Pastor. In 2019, Alfred & his wife Charis relocated to Richmond, B.C. and Alfred joined Outreach Canada as the Simply Mobilizing (SM) Canada Chinese Language Coordinator - implementing, maintaining and expanding the Kairos and other SM courses to mobilize Canadian Chinese diaspora Christians and their next generations to reach and disciple all nations.