“Pastoral transformation can not only help build and renew the life of Christians, but also help preserve and carry forward traditional Chinese culture.”
Adding traditional Chinese festivals into the liturgical calendar is an important practice to inculturate Christian liturgy in the Chinese context. Anscar J. Chupungco (1996), an influential Asian theologian known for liturgical studies, once especially mentioned the creative assimilation as a method used to integrate traditional feasts, cycle of human work and other elements into the liturgical calendar, speaking of liturgical inculturation (p.81). Creative assimilation means the integration of cultural elements like behaviors, gestures or symbols as a way of enriching the liturgical rite. Meanwhile, the application of creative assimilation has recourse to biblical typology that requires the cultural elements like rites and symbols to be reinterpreted based on biblical personages and events (p.79).
In the Chinese context, we can consider integrating traditional Chinese festivals (e.g. Spring Festival, Qingming Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Middle Autumn Festival, Chongyang Festival, etc.) or even the National Day into the Christian liturgical year. Festivals are the basic part of the national culture shared by all members of the nation. Festive celebrations help Christians form a sense of cultural identity and shape their national identity. Take Spring Festival as an example. I will first delve into its origin and find out the implication behind the celebration. Then the method of creative assimilation will be adopted to discern between festival value and Christian spirits, which will be followed by the attempt to integrate it into the Christian calendar.
The first day of the first lunar month was not referred to as Spring festival from the very beginning. The ancient Chinese people used to call the day as 元旦 (yuán dàn), 元辰 (yuán chén), 元正 (yuán zhèng), or 元日 (yuán rì), etc. And it was not until the early 20th century when they named it 春节 (chūn jié), or Spring Festival. The reason behind was that Sun Yat-sen, who was the first president of the Republic of China, wanted to popularize the Western calendar in the year of 1911. Since then, there have been two calendars in this country: the Gregorian calendar and the Lunar calendar. As it worked to differentiate between the first lunar month and the first solar month, Sun changed the New Year’s Day to the first of January to deal with the contradictions and remain folkways (Li, 2011).
The tradition of Spring Festival originated from the ritual sacrifices to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. People in the primitive times offered sacrifices to worship gods and ancestors, and pray for a harvest year to come after finishing the whole year’s agricultural labor. Also, since Spring Festival means spring is en route and all will come to life again, it is highly valued in China, a country where agriculture has a huge impact on its civilization. Therefore Spring Festival as the biggest traditional festival for the Chinese nation centers on ringing out the old and ringing in the new, family reunion, warding off evil spirits, worshiping gods and ancestors and praying for blessings.
One custom well worth mentioning to welcome the New Year is to clean dust every year on the 24th day of the 12th lunar month. Dust cleaning indicates removing dust from your home and give it a new look. The word “dust” in Chinese sounds the same as the Chinese word 陈 (chén), which means old. By doing so, people hope to get rid of all “bad luck” and “ill fortune” in the last year and welcome the new year with a new look. Such a long-lasting custom embodies people’s good wishes for starting a new year in an optimistic manner (Li, 2011).
Given the above, we may find that there are some similarities between a large portion of Spring Festival values and Christianity spirits. I will illustrate two values: thanksgiving and blessings, ringing out the old and ringing in the new; and then I will introduce two practices: prayer writing and the infusion of folklore into the Spring Festival worship service.
Thanksgiving and Blessings
For a start, we can turn the human sacrifices and thanksgiving for gods and our ancestors to the praise and gratitude towards our Creator, and pray for His care to watch over His people. This may bear a resemblance to the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”). According to their customs, the Jewish New Year is to remember all His great creations, both the heavens and the earth, as well as His love with which He rules over all. The Bible also refers to the praise and thanksgiving to God more than once for His creation and salvation, especially in the Book of Psalms. “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalms 8:1) And there are more examples in chapter 33, chapter 65, chapter 66... Also the New Testament has many verses about thanksgiving, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Bible verses about praying or blessings are also many. For example, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face shine upon us --” (Psalms 67:1) The ninth prayer in the Eighteen Benedictions pleads with the Lord for His blessings on the earth and a harvest year to come. Before He ascended to heaven, Jesus gave blessings to His disciples. (Luke 24:50) Paul also wrote epistles to bless churches in the name of Lord (1 Corinthians 16:23-24), among which the most quoted verse about blessings is “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)
However, we need to be aware that we shall avoid praying for our will in the prayer for blessings. Bible verses selected in Worship & Devotion Handbook (published by CCC&TSPM) for reading during Spring Festival are from Deuteronomy 28:1-14, telling that blessings will come upon the people who obey God and follow all His commands. But if someone disobeys and turns aside from the commands, the person will be subject to discipline with no doubt. So the Jews believe that the New Year is the time when God repays each one according to their deeds, whose personal luck next year is then also determined -- the evil gets punishment and the godly receives life. Psalms chapter 1 also echoes this idea.
In the New Testament, however, it tells us that the prerequisite of receiving God’s blessings is to live out a new life after the salvation and to respond to the love of our Lord, rather than obedience and following His commands. That is because the biggest blessing for us is “From God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship.” (Ephesians 1:3-5)
We can integrate prayers and hymns about thanksgiving and blessings into Spring Festival services, such as “The Grace of God Unbounded Is” from The New Hymnal/English - Chinese Bilingual Hymnal #179 (compiled by the National TSPM & CCC), “Thanksgiving for New Year” (The New Chinese Hymnal Supplement #118, published in 2009), and “Give Thanks to New Year” (#117). For liturgical services, Deuteronomy 28:1-14, Psalm 1 or 65 in the Old Testament, or Ephesians 4:22-24 in the Epistles can be selected as Scripture readings.
Ringing out the Old and Ringing in the New
Then, we can shift the Spring Festival value of “ringing out the old and ringing in the new” to “repentance and renewal” in Christianity. Repentance and renewal are among the core beliefs of Christianity. When Jesus went to Galilee and proclaimed the gospel, He first said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel!” (Luke 1:14-15) Repentance means the genuine Christian transformation is the reverence for God with simplicity and fervor; our old, sinful self dies, and we are born anew with the Holy Spirit. We of course cannot rely on our own strength; instead, it is the salvation of the Lord and the help of the empowering Spirit that enable us to repent of our sins.
Thus for Spring Festival services, welcoming the new year does not mean to get rid of all “bad luck” and “ill fortune” of the last year as it is valued in Spring Festival folklore. On the contrary, we shall remove old and bad habits, shake off the sinful and old self, and begin to live out a new life in Christ. Just as it is said in Ephesian 4:22-24, “...to put off your old self...to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
To better highlight the theme of ringing in a new year, it is recommended to use “The Eve to Welcome New Year’s Arrival” (The New Chinese Hymnal Supplement #116) as the introit of the Spring Festival service. The song tells that as we ring in the bell of the new year, we leave behind injustice, unrighteousness and sins in the year before, and put off the old self; usher in new year with justice, righteousness, truth and a heart of loving kindness, and wait for Christ’s coming to rule over all. The hymn “Congratulations to the New Year” (#119) by Chinese composer Sun Xisheng, not only gives blessings and peace, but especially refers to “put off all bad habits to lay aside the old and clothe ourselves with new self” as well. The New Hymnal also includes two hymns for New Year: “The Old Year Past, the New Year Comes” (#181) and “Old Year’s Gone” (#182).
Apart from hymns or sermons, the two themes mentioned above “Thanksgiving and Blessings” and “Ringing out the Old and Ringing in the New” can also be included in our payers: prayers of honor, prayers of confession, prayers of intercession, or even benediction prayers. For example, as the first interdenominational Chinese hymnal published in 1936, Hymns of Universal Praise, included a New Year prayer, encompassing thanksgiving, repentance, and renewal with resolve:
Our everlasting God, by your grace can we enter the gate of the new year;
Listen to our prayer and give us a heart of humility and gratitude when entering the gate;
Strengthen our heart, and let us follow the Word of God, the commands our Lord has preached, and the path that He walked.
We want to walk with you, come even closer to you,
And serve you with greater faith and diligence.
Do not let us get entangled by the sins committed in the old days, forgive us and set us free;
Give us a goal of pureness, a hope of kindness, so that we can reiterate our vow in your presence.
In the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we walk in the light and know the land of perfection.
Besides, we shall ask for His mercy, healing and renewal in the prayer of intercession during Spring Festival services. Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out globally, and virus cases rebound until now. The pandemic threatens human lives, and it causes terror, anxiety and desperation. For these, we pray:
The Lord of Creation,
As the New Year is approaching,
We plead with you having mercy on us to restore this land,
And to end the virus in due time.
Help us return to you in the new year,
Live our life according to your order and law,
And fulfil the duty of stewardship to take care of this world.
Healer of all,
“Heal those who are sick with the virus.
May they regain their strength and health through quality medical care.
Be with those who have died from the virus. May they be at rest with you in your eternal peace.
Be with the families of those who are sick or have died. As they worry and grieve, defend them from illness and despair. May they know your peace.”
Be with us in such a time of riot, terror and grief.
“Be with the doctors, nurses, researchers and all medical professionals who seek to heal and help those affected and who put themselves at risk in the process.
May they know your protection and peace.
Be with the leaders of all nations. Give them the foresight to act with charity and true concern for the well-being of the people they are meant to serve.
Give them wisdom to invest in long-term solutions that will help prepare for future outbreaks.
May they know your peace, as they work together to achieve it on earth.” (Excerpts from A Cornonavirus Prayer by Kerry Weber)
In the new year, we put our uncertain future in your hand,
Oh Lord, guide us and protect us.
Bestow healing, peace and hope upon us,
When we are anxiously fighting against the virus, and in preparation for another outbreak.
May the Lord be with us all.
The Infusion of Folklore
At last, we can consider how to integrate folklore elements into worship services. Even though Spring Festival usually comes after the Epiphany, during which the liturgical color is green, we can still take red into consideration as the color for sacrificial cloth and stoles to add a festive ambiance. Also, adorning the church with Spring Festival Couplets (or chūn lián), paper-cuts and other decorations can help create a festive atmosphere.
As a unique literary genre in China, Spring Festival Couplets feature concise, dual and neat texts to express good wishes. We can paste couplets with phrases both rich in Christianity connotations and the traditional values of Spring Festival to decorate the places of worship. For instance, the upper scroll can say: “明媚春光彰主爱，欢腾岁月沐神恩” (míng mèi chūn guāng zhāng zhǔ ài, huān téng suì yuè mǜ shén ēn), which means that the bright spring light reveals the love of the Lord, the rejoicing moments spent are the showers of God’s grace; the lower scroll can go: “迎新春静思主爱，辞旧岁数算神恩” (yíng xīn chūn jìng sī zhǔ ài, cí jiù suì shǔ suàn shén ēn), meaning to welcome the New Year to meditate His love, and wave goodbye the old year to remember His Grace; the horizontal scroll can read: “神爱世人” (shén ài shì rén) , namely God loves all People.
Chinese Paper-cutting is the most representative handcraft that showcases techniques in cutting and engraving. The content often reflects people’s hope and aspiration for the ideal life. Paper-cuts for window decoration in places of worship can incorporate Christian stories and spirits while reserving its art form. Photos below show traditional motifs like the Chinese character 福 (fú) as the background pattern, added with 以马内利 (Immanuel) and 神爱世人 (God loves all people).
When it comes to audiovisual art, we can sing hymns with Chinese tunes as well as with strong local characteristics. And these can be played by ethnic musical instruments, such as suona (known for loud, high-pitched sound), waist drum, bamboo flute, pipa, etc.
Spring Festival is one of the most important traditional festival for the Chinese nation. It promotes our ethnic spirits and shape national identity. So when our churches attempt to add such traditional festival into the liturgical year, we shall use the method of creative assimilation to reinterpret the cultural value and make it compatible with the core of Christianity spirits, so as to better infuse into Christianity liturgical year. Pastoral transformation can not only help build and renew the life of Christians, but also help preserve and carry forward traditional Chinese culture. Also like what the liturgist Jeffrey A. Truscott (2011) said, through celebrating these “secular” festivals, churches can seek the chance to speak the Word of God on greater concerns shared by human communities.
Chupungco, Anscar J., “Two Methods of Liturgical Inculturation” in Christian Worship: Unity in Cultural Diversity, Dept. for Theology and Studies, Lutheran World Federation, 1996, p. 79, p. 81.
Li, Ke, Traditional Fork Festivals in China, Sichuan Publishing Group, Bashu Book Society, 2011, pp. 9 - 10, 19 - 20.
Weber, Kerry, A Cornonavirus Prayer, 2021.
Truscott, Jeffrey A., “Introduction to Worship and Liturgy”, 2011, Trinity Theological College, Singapore. Lecture handout.
Author: Zhou Yongci, teacher of East China Theological Seminary
Translator: Bei Feng
Source: Tianfeng, Vol. 494, Feb. 2021