A New Lent, and a New (Lunar) New Year

Red rolls of exploding Chinese fireworks chase away evil spirits and prepare the way for the New Lunar Year. Dragons and Lions dance (龍獅舞) as a reminder of one’s inner strengths when facing challenges of the upcoming year. Offerings of bright, colorful fruits piled on plates pacify hungry and thirsty spirits. Kumquat trees, peach blossoms, and chrysanthemums cover every corner of the room, and incense rise up before altars and shrines to God, ancestors, and other spirits.  

For many Asians, regardless of religious or non-religious affiliations, the Lunar New Year is a special time to recall our shared origin, honor those who came before us, give thanks for the past year and pray for a better year. The festivities begin approximately two weeks before the New Year and continue for about two weeks after.  

This year (Feb. 10), like most years, New Year celebration “clashes” with Ash Wednesday (Feb. 13), a time for penance, and for those of us who are Asian and Catholic, this might seem to be a cause for internal conflict, a crisis in identity.  Yet, living in paradox, in the “both/and,” is as Catholic as it is Asian.

So what do we do when Lunar New Year crosses paths with Lent?  We cross ourselves and continue to celebrate.  As we end the old year and start the New Year with the celebration of Mass (yes, there are special prefaces in the Vietnamese Roman Missal for these occasions), we begin Lent with the celebration of Mass.  And when the week of Lunar New Year coincides with the first days of Lent, bishops would often dispense us from the obligation to abstain from meat that week.

Hỡi người hãy nhớ mình là bụi tro (Gen. 3:19).  More important than abstinence and fasting, during Lent as during the Lunar New Year, we remember with devotion and affection those who labored to bring us out of the dirt and ensured that we live abundant lives.  A humble recognition of one’s nothingness without one’s elders, ancestors and above all without one’s God is the foundational and relational grace necessary for a new beginning.

For the Vietnamese, our strength lies in our roots, and it is no wonder that our parents taught us long before we learned to use chopsticks that we were Con Rồng, cháu Tiên (Descendants of Dragon and Gods); and for us Catholics, beyond Dragon and Gods, we can trace our roots further back to One Creator. Sinh khí của Thiên Chúa đã làm ra tôi, hơi thở của Ðấng Toàn Năng đã cho tôi được sống. (Job 33:4).

Looking at our history, we are convinced of our mighty and majestic yet humbling mythical lineage.  Thousands of Vietnamese Catholic Martyrs between the 15th and 20th centuries endured persecution to keep the flame of faith blazing in the hearts of their descendants.  Many of our parents and grandparents nourished by faith in their origin built up their lives from scratch in the U.S. after their exodus from Vietnam almost forty years ago.  God walked with them in their humble beginnings, and they remind us to walk humbly with God.  We are dragons and gods; we are the descendants of the martyrs; we are dirt filled with the Breath of God.

From humility in our relationship with God and the children of God, past and present, thanksgiving and offerings of love flow and satiates the One who cries out on the cross from the depths of His Spirit: “I thirst” (Jn. 19:28).  And when our humility explodes louder than our pride in welcoming the New Year and in preparing the way for the One who thirsts for love, especially in the Season of Penance, it is indeed an occasion to celebrate.

Who strengthens you by his or her example of loving, humble service?