Sunday, February 7, 2016

Faith and Culture

Chinese New Year 2016

Of all the cultural celebrations of the Chinese community, the Lunar New Year is by far the most important. That is why we have chosen to celebrate this cultural festival today as a parish community, as a community of Catholics. Culture gives meaning to our lives. Culture gives us our identity. But all of us have many layers of cultural identity. I am Chinese, but I’m also English educated. I’m also Malaysian, which makes me quite different from the Chinese from mainland China or Taiwan. But finally, I’m also Catholic. All these titles can place me into different groups of people and influence my personality and choices. Normally, these different groups often live separately and need not have any relation with each other. But being Catholic, has brought all these different cultural aspects together under one roof.

It’s hard to define what culture is. It’s like the air that we breathe. We know it’s there but usually pay little attention to it. We only begin to speak of it when having to explain to someone else what that culture is all about. Most people, of course, associate culture with dressing, language, music, dance and our festivals. But just because we dress up once a year in our traditional costumes or play certain music once year doesn’t really do justice to culture. It’s what I call “tourism” – that is for “show” only. True culture affects our values and the choices we make. It is the lenses in which we view the world.

How does the Church view culture? What is the relationship between faith and culture? The Church views culture positively as that which is “best” in man – culture is man’s best mental and physical achievements. The Church preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ by using the language and the symbols of culture. Just as the Word of God became man to reveal to us the plan of God, the gospel too must be understood and take on the language of culture to communicate itself to men.

In other words, there is no opposition between faith and culture. There is much we can learn from culture but there is much that our culture can learn from faith. Faith teaches us that culture is truly the “best” when it is directed at God. Faith purifies culture and helps man to see that what is best are not his personal achievements or even his heritage. Faith helps us to see that the “best” of what man can achieve is when he worships God. Faith also helps us work out our priorities. God first, others second, we last of all. An Indian new convert once told me that his old religion taught him three important values in life, mother, teacher and God. But ever since he became Catholic, he now understood his priorities. God first, mother second and teacher, third. We must never forget that if God is absent from our culture and customs, we end up worshipping culture instead. And when culture is worshipped, we ultimately end up worshipping man whilst God is forgotten.

That is why our festive celebration begins with mass. We must always remember that whatever is the best and the greatest must first be offered to God. At every mass, it is God who is glorified and man sanctified. Mass is not a place where we glorify man or even culture. Mass is not a showcase of man’s culture. Mass is a demonstration of God’s power, His authority and grace. Mass is a place where we transcend culture. It is the celebration of the entire Church. Not just of the Chinese people, but also the whole community, for in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, man or woman, for we are all united in Christ.

Today, both culture and faith have suffered from the pressures of modern living. We now live in a society quite different from what we had when most of us grew up, regardless of the culture that nurtured us. For us Chinese, parents and family are important priorities and yet the largest number of elderly residing in old folks home comes from the Chinese community.  In order that we may continue to promote these good cultural values and save them from further deterioration, we must strengthen our faith. They are both inter-related. People of faith would learn to honour their parents because to honour them is keeping the commandment of God.

At the end of this mass, we will have the rite of veneration of ancestors. We must keep a few things in mind. Though we have learnt a great deal from our culture, our understanding is very different from non-Catholics. As Catholics we do not “worship” our ancestors neither do the souls of our ancestors reside in the ancestral tablet. As Catholics, we pray for the dead because they can no longer pray for themselves. The greatest prayer we can offer as Catholics is the mass because it is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross that can save them as well us. Our Catholic faith teaches us that we when honour our parents, our elders and even the saints, we give glory to God. God is worshipped in the veneration of the saints and in the honour we give to our elders. That is why in today’s ritual, it is necessary that we make a clear distinction between the worship which can be given to God alone and the honour which we give to our ancestors. Even, when venerate our ancestors, we must do so without forgetting God. God comes first, others second, we come last of all.

Today, as we celebrate this thanksgiving mass with the Chinese community, let us continue to glorify God, to praise Him in all things, even as we celebrate our cultural customs and honour our elders and ancestors. As St Irenaeus reminds us, “the glory of God is man fully alive, and man is fully alive when he worships God.”

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