We have been celebrating the Chinese New Year in Singapore in the past week. Even if you’re not Chinese and are not celebrating it yourself, you probably know someone who has.
As part of the Chinese New Year celebrations, we Chinese would be sweeping away the bad luck of the previous year by spring-cleaning our rooms and houses. We put up decorations in red, dress up in red, and exchange red packets, in the hope – because red represents good luck – of welcoming good luck and imparting good luck to family and friends.
Then there would also be the traditional reunion lunch or dinner with family, usually accompanied by Lo Hei (tossing luck). Like many of the other things that are done during the Chinese New Year, every ingredient in the Lo Hei symbolizes something of importance to the Chinese. For example
– Fish or “Yu”, which sounds like abundance in Mandarin, is served together with a blessing “Nian Nian You Yu”. This means “abundance throughout the year”.
– Oil is poured out on all the ingredients, to symbolize money flowing in all directions, together with the blessing “Yi Ben Wan Li” and “Cai Yuan Guang Jin” which means “may you profit increase by ten thousand times” and “numerous sources of wealth”.
– Deep fried flour crisps in the shape of gold ingots are also added, to symbolize a floor full of gold. The blessing which goes with this is “Man Di Huang Jin” which literally means, “floor filled with gold”.
The other new year which we celebrate in Singapore – the “English” New Year – is not anywhere as elaborate. There isn’t the same kind of tradition, or symbolism behind everything done during the “English New Year”.
What about the Bible ? If God had to celebrate the New Year, how would He do it? Let’s turn our Bibles now to Exodus 12. Exodus 12 is the first time in which a New Year celebration is mentioned in the Bible. Here, God gives the Israelites instructions on how to celebrate the New Year. Like the Chinese, there is a meal eaten with the family through the generations, and also a great deal of symbolism behind everything that is done. But first, let’s look at the background to Exodus 12.
Background to Exodus 12
Exodus is the account of how God rescues the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to bring them to the “Promised Land”, which today is the very land occupied by the country of Israel. “Exodus” means “to bring out”.
At the end of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the forefathers of Israel – Jacob and his sons – settle down in the land of Egypt. Over several generations, the population of Israelites grows, and the native Egyptians worry that the Israelites will one day become more powerful and rule over them. So they force the Israelites into slavery. The Israelites cry out to God, who hears them, and sends them Moses to lead them out of Egypt.
Moses confronts Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, and asks him to release the Israelites. Because Pharaoh does not agree, God brings about nine plagues or disasters on Egypt to get Pharaoh to change his mind, but each time Pharaoh does not. Pharaoh is a very proud and stubborn man. Exodus 12 tells us how God is about to bring the last and most terrible disaster on Egypt. This is the Plague on the Firstborn, in which God will cause every firstborn male and animal in Egypt to die.
However, the Israelite children would be spared, and God gives Moses and the Israelites instructions on how to avoid this terrible disaster. This – the Passover – also marks the beginning of the new year for the Israelites. And like the Chinese New Year, the Passover is celebrated every year by Jews even today, with a Passover meal.
1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. … 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. …
11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. 12 On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
14 This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord — a lasting ordinance. 15 For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat; that is all you may do.
17 “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.
When the Passover was first celebrated, it was a time of fear and anxiety. The Israelites were still slaves in Egypt, uncertain of what Pharaoh would do next. After the Israelites left Egypt, it became a celebration of joy. Just like the Chinese New Year is a celebration of joy – of a fresh start for the new year – for the Chinese.
(I) A LONGING FOR SOMETHING BETTER
For most of us, most of the time, the Chinese New Year is a time of celebration. However, for some people it will not be the easiest time of their lives. By this I don’t mean the times when relatives ask embarrassing questions about the boyfriend or girlfriend which you’ve never had, when you’re getting married, or when you’re having kids.
For some, the Chinese New Year will be a time when they experience intense loneliness. This can be because they have been studying or working overseas, or have children who are studying or working overseas, and the family has not had a chance to get together for a long time. For others the issues may be more complex – they may have fallen out with their families for various reasons, may long for reconciliation or acceptance.
This Chinese New Year I visited a grandaunt who, in true Peranakan tradition, started to talk about the extended family and how some younger relatives were rude for not visiting, how other relatives are fighting over family inheritance, and other relatives were no longer talking to each other. Underlying all this, is a bitterness over what has happened, and an unsaid longing for reconciliation in the future. Of course, we’re Chinese and we like face.
Most of the time, you won’t get anyone pouring out to you their sad stories during the Chinese New Year. The only thing that we Chinese are not shy to tell others about, is money and good fortune. That is why we are all dressed in red during the Chinese New Year. But we tend to keep mum about any personal unhappiness.
Interestingly, the Bible does not try to hide the reality of bitterness. The Passover meal is in fact specifically cooked with bitter herbs to remind them of the bitterness of the past. In Exodus 12 : 8 the Israelites are told to “eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs”. So if I were to compare the Chinese New Year reunion meal with the Passover meal, I would say that both meals point us to a very basic desire in all of us – a desire to put the bitterness of the past behind, and a longing for a future that is better.
But the Chinese New Year sort of ends there, with a longing often left unsaid and unresolved. What the Chinese New Year did for my grandaunt, was bring to boiling point her grief. What the Chinese New Year does for most people, is to bring to the surface – to their realization – how unhappy they are. But there is nothing in the Chinese New Year which shows us how to move forward; it only uses symbols of luck and good fortune to paper over the cracks in our lives.
(II) LONGING NOT WITHOUT HOPE
But in the Bible, and even in how the New Year is celebrated in the Bible, God plants hope in the reality of bitterness. The Bible neither denies the reality of disappointments in life, nor leaves us without hope.
In the Passover, this is seen in the instructions that the Israelites are to eat the Passover meal “with your cloak tucked into your belt, and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste …” (Exodus 12 : 11). In addition, the Israelites are told to eat bread made without yeast, because if bread were prepared with yeast, there would be no time to wait for the bread to rise before it was time to leave Egypt. The eating of bread without yeast continues to be part of the Passover tradition today.
Eating the Passover meal in clothes which the Israelites were ready to travel in, and preparing bread without yeast because there would no time to wait for the bread to rise – the implication is that the bitterness was temporary, and that God had plans for the Israelites to move on. Similarly for us as Christians today, this holds the promise that the bitterness of the present is temporary, and that God wants us to move on in hope.
(III) HOPE IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB
But on what is this hope based ? For the Chinese, hope is pinned in the use of the colour red to bring good luck and good fortune. We wear red clothes, and we hang up red decorations, and give red packets with .
For the Israelites, hope was also pinned in the colour red. But this red is the blood of the lamb slaughtered for the Passover meal.
“… slaughter [ the lamb ] at twilight. Then … take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where [ you ] eat the lambs. … On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn – both men and animals – and I will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” (Exodus 12 : 7, 12 – 13)
Why must a young and innocent lamb be killed so brutally as part of the Passover meal ? I recently talked to a colleague who is on an overseas assignment in China. He told me that one of the highlights of the Shanghai Zoo is the feeding of live chickens to lions. He said that he did not understand why people would want to be witnesses of such brutality. Watching a lion eat a zebra on Animal Planet was more than enough for him.
In the Bible, such brutality was intended to remind the Israelites of the price of their escape from Egypt. When slavery was practised, you could buy the release or freedom of a slave by paying his master or owner a price. For the Israelites, their freedom could not be bought in money; it had to be paid for in blood. For God to rescue or redeem the Israelites from slavery, a lamb had to be brutally sacrificed. An innocent life had to be given in exchange for their freedom.
For us as Christians today, this blood of the Passover lamb is the blood of Jesus, that flowed from Him when He died on the cross. How does Jesus bring hope ?
First, Jesus is the like the innocent Passover Lamb, who by his sacrifice on the cross, died to take away the sins and shame and bitterness of our past, to give us a new hope for the future. In John 1 : 29, John the Baptist proclaims that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. For us as Christians today, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is a demonstration of the depth and breadth of God’s love for us, that He was prepared to give the life of Jesus Christ His only son, to redeem us from the sins and shame and bitterness of the past.
Secondly, free from our past, we are now free to live more abundantly. In John 10 : 10, Jesus declares that “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it abundantly”.
Finally, there is a promise that at the end of our earthly lifetime, we can look forward to an eternity with God, in which there will be no more bitterness. In Revelation 21 : 3 – 4, we read of a future in which “the dwelling of God is with men … He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain …”.
Every first Sunday of the month, we celebrate the Holy Communion in church. As one community, we eat a wafer and drink a small cup of red juice. When Jesus first gave His disciples instructions on what is today the Holy Communion, He was in fact eating the Passover meal with His disciples.
“So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover. … While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to His disciples saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them saying, ‘Drink from it all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. …’.” (Matthew 26 : 19, 26 – 28)
The wafer that we eat today, was in Jesus’ time the bread that was baked without yeast. At the Passover meal, Jesus broke that bread into several pieces, to symbolize that His body would also be broken on the cross, for our redemption. The red juice that we drink today, was the wine which Jesus shared with His disciples at the Passover meal. It symbolizes the blood which Jesus shed on the cross, for our redemption.
So the Holy Communion that we celebrate together in church every month, is in fact a condensed version of the Passover in Exodus, a celebration of a new year and a new beginning, and of a hope placed in God.
We do not take bitter herbs with our Holy Communion, but we bring to God the imperfection and brokenness of our lives, and acknowledge the need for Jesus to take away the bitterness of our sins and past, and to give us a new hope.
We are not packed to leave the country when taking the Holy Communion, and we eat a wafer instead of bread baked without yeast. But with the background to the Passover, we are reminded that the disappointments of today are temporary, and that in Jesus Christ we can move on with a hope for tomorrow.
We do not slaughter and cook a lamb as part of the Holy Communion, and we drink blackcurrent juice instead of wine. But our understanding of Jesus as the Passover Lamb and the red in the juice, reminds us of the high price that God had to pay to redeem us from the slavery of our sins and past – the brutal sacrifice of Jesus.
In this we see how great God’s love is for us, and our hope is complete.