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Reflections on Tomb Sweeping Festival

“For death is the destiny of everyone, the living should take this to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)

The Tomb Sweeping Festival arrives again when pear trees are in blossom. But for some believers, there have always been doubts -- whether and how Christians can celebrate this festival? Certainly Chinese people can celebrate it, because it is our traditional festival. But we shall ponder and understand how to respect our tradition, remember our ancestors and promote the virtue of filial piety while still holding on to faith during this festival.

Photo by Laura Adai on Unsplash

Worship ancestor VS remember ancestor

Speaking of the Tomb Sweeping Festival, the first thing to consider is ancestor worship. Chinese people who have been deeply influenced by Confucianism attach great significance to worshiping the deceased. It is fair to say that ancestor worship is the core content of the festival, which involves the rituals like kneeling down and bowing to ancestors, preparing sacrificial offering on table, burnt incense and joss paper, etc. In the late Ming Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty, there was a fierce debate among Catholic missionaries in China concerning the attitudes towards the traditional Chinese rituals (such as the practices of worshiping ancestor worship and honoring Confucius), historically referred to as “Chinese Rites Controversy”. This reflects the dispute among foreign religions and traditional Chinese rituals, which resulted in a hundred-year-long ban on Catholicism by the Qing government.

Ancestor worship actually implicates prudently handling the death of a close person and piously respecting ancestors. In Christian culture, however, it also calls for such an idea. The Bible records that Abraham mourned for his wife and wept over her, after Sarah passed away (Genesis 23:2). Following the death of Jacob, Joseph arranged the funeral according to the tradition of the Egyptians, embalming the body for forty days and mourning for his father for seventy days (Genesis 50:1-3). In the New Testament, Jesus swept when Lazarus, the one He loved, was dead in the tomb (John 11:35). These are the examples of prudently settling a deceased one’s affairs. In the Old Testament, books like Genesis, Exodus, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles record the genealogies of the Israelites; the Book of Matthew and Book of Luke in the New Testament detail the genealogy of Jesus. Those are the proofs of remembering ancestors.

Besides, we also know that many people worship ancestor not out of remembrance, but out of fear or their pursuit of blessings. However, dead people are unable to bring disasters or blessings. Paul said, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). In Job 34:15, “All humanity would perish together and mankind would return to the dust.” The verses that mention “those who have fallen asleep” and “would perish together” are respectively “已经死了的人” (the dead people) and “所有活着的人都要消灭” (all living people will be perished) in the Today’s Chinese Version of the Bible. This indicates that people who are already dead and perished can feel nothing, so how can they eat the offerings provided by the living people?

So when Christians sweep tombs during this festival, instead of ancestor worship, they remember ancestors, reminisce about and honor them. We cherish the memory of the decease family members, remember their grace, care and beautiful faith, keep their toil and teachings in mind, so as to pass good upbringing, family tradition, family ethics as well as faithfulness from generation to generation.

Sacrifice for the dead and respect for the alive

In the eyes of the Chinese, a funeral is highly regarded as the embodiment of filial piety. In the Analects of Confucius, people are told to serve their parents properly, when they are alive; when they die, their children should bury them decently, and then worship them with propriety. It is the same in Christianity. Honoring your mother and your father (Exodus 20:12) is not only one of the commandments that God gave to mankind, it is also the first commandment with a promise (Ephesians 6:1-3). But today, many know only to “bury their parents decently” and “worship them with propriety”, while forgetting to “serve their parents with properly when they are alive”. Some show little respect for their parents when they are alive; ironically, they spend a lot of money on a grand funeral after their parents die. They hire professionals to cry at the funeral, throw a banquet and burn joss money. Such feigned filial piety is inappropriate.

The Bible teaches us to honor parents when they are alive, not when they are dead. Christians should advocate generous care and frugal burial -- namely to show more respect to the elderly when they are alive and to provide a good quality of life that allows them to live and eat well and feel refreshed in their old age. After parents pass away, their funeral can be nothing but simple and solemn. The Bible tells us that people simply fall asleep as they die. Spirits can not eat or drink. Nor can they walk freely in Hades (Luke 16:19-31). Christians should make good use of the time when their parents are alive, honoring them rather than falling into the regretful feeling of wanting to honor them but they are no long there. Love now and honor in this life.

Avoid death VS transcend death

Tomb Sweeping Day, is both a festival and a solar term. It is the fifth solar term of the twenty-four solar terms. On this day, people repair tombs and add fresh soil to the graves in remembrance of the deceased. Normally, people are too busy to think about life and death, and even avoid talking about the latter. In the chapter “Xian Jin” (先進) of the Analects of Confucius, one of Confucius’ students Jilu asked about serving the spirits of the dead. The master replied, “While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve spirits of the dead?” (未能事人,焉能事鬼?) The student added, “I venture to ask about death.” Confucius then said, “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” (未知生,焉知死) This conversation tells that the student had no idea of how to deal with life, death and spirits, so he went to Confucius. But obviously, the master was not too pleased with this question. “未知生,焉知死” means that you have to know about life before knowing what happens after death. His previous reply also stressed a similar idea: to prioritize the matters of the living, then the spirits of the dead. Learning knowledge is an incremental process that should be without haste. There is no need to think about spirits if one cannot handle the matters of life. That sounds plausible, but Ecclesiastes 7:2 tells us, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.”

Things like natural disasters, man-made calamities, diseases and warfare, all remind us that death can be so close, forcing us to think about it. Only with a peaceful mind to contemplate death can we truly understand the meaning of life. That is to understand life by death contemplation. Being towards death can stimulate our desire to live. Therefore, we cherish our lives and better know what we real need and what we seek after in life.

Another reason why people want to avoid death is, many reckon that everything is gone after death. Thus, there are some Chinese sayings, “人死如灯灭” (a person dies like a light that goes out), “死去元知万事空” (everything is futile after death). As a matter of fact, no one can say such a word. How can they know that there is nothing after death if they have not yet died? The Chinese often say “一路走好” (literally means having a good journey) to the deceased, which implies that there is eternity and future.

In Hebrews 9:27, it says “just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgement.” Here come the third reason for avoiding death: the fear of death and uncertainty. Christians are able to talk about death with courage and wisdom, because of our God who loves us; and in the Lord we have faith to rise from death, and in Him we have eternal life (John 3:16). “Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the road of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79) We as Christians know that no matter how beautiful the life is, we are simply the passengers on this journey; one day we will return home. So Christians see death as a sleep, or as a start of the journey back home. Therefore, their way of leaving this world is usually very peaceful.

Dear brothers and sisters, when commemorating the dead at the Tomb Sweeping Festival, we remember not only them, but also our past time. Death comes to everyone. Life is like the morning dew. Tomorrow is a mystery. Mortality urges us to reflect on the meaning of eternity, and then examine our way of life. For the unbelievers, may they return quickly and seek the meaning of life; for the believers, be awake and live a meaningful life.

Author: Chen Ming

Translator and editor: Bei Feng, Tian Tian.