Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cultural rites in liturgical practice

My Chinese New Year Mass pictures uploaded to Facebook (23/1/2012) has attracted some attention. Many "shared" picture (s) with their friends and started lively discussions and arguments.

Through the help of Amanda of Penang, I reprint below an article written by Fr. Michael Cheah, which was published in Penang Diocese News (Mar-Apr 2000), for better understanding of Chinese cultural rites. (Also a news report on Tamil "Ponggal" festival below)

From the discussions, I noted many Chinese have no knowledge of how Catholics celebrate Mass, how Chinese celebrate new year and what are Chinese tradition and cultural practices. Some even disowned their Chinese root or just ignorance.... Some Christians even called this a "cult".... interesting!

And of course, some are simply irresponsible "shit-stirrers".

This article is solely for Catholic community only.

By Fr. Michael Cheah

In a multi-racial and multi-religious country like Malaysia, there always seems to be a problem in distinguishing between that which is customary or cultural and that which is religious. Our religious practices, customs and cultures have crossed paths quite often in our daily lives. This is an attempt to lay to rest certain ambiguities or doubts concerning Chinese cultural practices during the Chinese Lunar New Year.

1. Joss-sticks
Joss sticks are actually incense made in the traditional Chinese style. Joss sticks by themselves are not ‘religious’ in any way. It is incense made into the form of a stick, to be burnt so as to give out a fragrant smell that is conducive for both worship and offering. In the West, incense has always been in the form of powdered or ‘pounded-form’. This powdered incense is then put onto hot charcoal and consequently, the smoke-form of incense is produced. Likewise, the Chinese or Oriental form is the compacting of the powdered incense into a paste and then ‘wrapped’ round a stick; the joss-stick is then lit or burnt to give off the fragrance. There are also other forms of incense, for example, the spiral forms that are similar to the mosquito coil. The Chinese description of incense is “sweet-smelling” or heong and it can come in many forms. The East always has the rich tradition (including the Eastern Churches) of using incense in worship.

This is certainly NOT the worshipping of ancestors. The Rite of Honouring ancestors is deeply ingrained in the lives of the Chinese as it is the continuation of the virtue of Filial Piety. There are few occasions whereby the Chinese people remember and give respect to their ancestors. This recalling is actualized in rituals, especially during special and auspicious days and in these special rites, offerings and respect are given to departed ancestors. We can conclude that the act of offering food and other relevant things in the rite of the honouring ancestors is similar to our Roman Catholic practice of remembering our beloved departed brothers and sisters and in the offering of flowers and the burning of candles for our dearly departed ones.

The offering of food and cakes (New Year cakes) made to ancestors is done not so much for them to eat or consume them. It is done with the intention of recalling the happy times that both the living and the deceased shared together, when the ancestors were still alive. Chinese tradition places important emphases on meals; hence, whenever food is ‘offered’ to ancestors or at graves (Feast of Ching Ming), the intention is to provide an occasion to have a ‘meal ‘ together with the deceased. This is a recalling of the many meals which have been shared with those who have since passed away. The food is usually taken back for consumption in the house. Thus, the food is indeed not offered to idols or spirit.

The offering of fruits is also based on the same principle of recalling good times with those who have passed away. There is also the element of linguistic harmony in relation to the names of the fruits offered, especially in the Cantonese dialect. For example, the mandarin oranges (Kum) means gold, pineapple (wong li) denotes the coming of prosperity, orange lime (kat) means good luck, sugar cane (kam chear) denotes good family or fertility, pomeloes (por luk) means wholeness of prosperity. Fruits do not carry any religious significance as well.

The burning of candles is also an ancient practice of the Chinese. However, the preferred colour chosen by the Chinese is red which symbolizes joy, goodness and prosperity. The colour of the candles does not signify anything religious. It is just the culture of the Chinese that candles should not be white as this colour symbolizes death or misfortune.

The dragon is a mythological animal in Chinese culture. No doubt it appeared in Buddhist writings, it is deemed as a creature which is created by God and is subjected to Him. There is also the fact that human beings are to live in harmony with nature and all God-created animals. There is no such thing as the humans worshipping any created thing, including any animal at all. Hence images or symbols of the dragon are for decorations only.

As mentioned above, the burning of joss-sticks is similar to the burning of incense during the celebration of the Mass. The difference is in the form of incense being used; the Western form is in powdered form and needs charcoal amber in a thurifer to dispense, which the Eastern form is just the lighting of the joss-sticks and placing them in an urn. The advantage of the Chinese joss-sticks is that a continuous fragrance will be emitted as they burn throughout the celebration of the Mass.

In the practice of the Roman Catholic Church, at certain points of the Eucharistic celebration, the altar-servers will ring a bell. The Chinese have their way of indicating the special moments within the celebration of the Mass. Instead of ringing the small bells, they hit gong or metal ‘bowl-like’ gongs with the same pious reasons. Hence the form of indicating the certain important moments of the Eucharistic celebration can he both varied and cultural. The usage of certain instruments within the celebration of the Mass can never be “irreligious”.

Below is a news article on Indian Ponggal festival celebrated at the Immaculate Conception Church, Pulau Tikus, Penang and reported by The New Straits Times on 26-1-2012.

GEORGE TOWN: About 400 parishioners of all races, dressed in traditional and modern attire, celebrated the Tamil harvest festival of Ponggal at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Pulau Tikus recently.

Although the celebration was originally a festival in which farmers sought a bountiful harvest in Tamilnadu, India, it is now widely regarded as one of the most important dates in the Tamil calendar. The church was decorated with stalks of sugar cane, which signify sweetness and happiness.

The highlight of the celebrations is when boiling rice mixed with milk and other ingredients, inside a new earthenware pot, boils over or "ponggal"

This symbolises a good harvest to come. A kolam made of rice flour was also among the decorations.

Parish priest, Fr Michael Cheah, said: "Ponggal is a cultural festival. The church has allowed the celebrations to be part of the church activities for many years.

"The Roman Catholic Church encourages the retention of eastern culture and traditions, like the Chinese New Year celebrations within the church as part of its programme."

Parishioners were treated to lavish vegetarian lunch. By Paul Toh

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queen_of_bee said...

thank you for sharing! i understand more now.

pangzter said...

It's quite a difficult thing to swallow, but I do wish that it is done according to the will of the Father. Blessings.