I went to Ash Wednesday Mass this morning at 8:30. It was quite well-attended, although it’s hard to say why. I haven’t been to Sunday Mass in Xiamen in over a month, so maybe the inordinate numbers of young people is due more to the current vacation than to the allure of ashes. I realized when I walked in how much I’ve missed the community (even such as it is); I guess this place really has become my church in the last few months.
It was a fairly normal Mass except for the distribution of ashes. Across the world, Catholic churches take time after the homily to put ashes, the burnt remains of last year’s Palm Sunday palms, on the foreheads of churchgoers. As they are marked with the sign of the cross, the minister usually says either “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” It was almost the same here (although I honestly couldn’t tell you what Father Jiang was saying as he did it), except he put the ashes above the hairline. Thus, instead of leaving church with a gray smudge on your forehead, which people will helpfully try to wipe off all day, the mark was completely invisible. I know that part of the purpose of Ash Wednesday is the visible mark of penitence, mortality, sorrow, etc., but to be honest I was pleased with the way they did it. I don’t have the vocabulary, and the average Chinese person doesn’t have the theology, to explain the significance of it.
The weirdest part came after Mass ended. As I was kneeling, saying a few last prayers, my friends kept coming up to me, giving me a big smile, and joyfully wishing me a “Happy New Year!” It’s not weird that they interrupted me while praying; that happens all the time. I still haven’t gotten used to the integration of the Chinese lunar calendar with the Catholic liturgical calendar – it’s weird.
There’s a natural rhythm to the liturgical calendar – a time of preparation followed by the celebration of Christmas; then there’s a few weeks of Ordinary Time before Lent begins, followed by the feast of Easter. In America, even though we have tons of people who aren’t Catholic or even Christian, the liturgical calendar is a part of our history and still a part of our present. We have winter break centered around Christmas, and sometimes spring break coincides with Easter. The periods of Ordinary Time are also relatively ordinary in terms of secular events, and with the exception of St. Patrick’s Day, nothing really major happens between late January and early April to interfere with Lent.
Not so in China. The rise and fall I’m used to has been messed up since I got here. Because I was trying to keep up with stuff back home, the “holiday season” started with Thanksgiving. It led right into Advent, up to Christmas, and went through New Year’s. Then the semester ended and I found myself on holiday (as in, vacation); by the time I got back it was the Chinese New Year and time to celebrate all over again. Basically, I can look back on almost three months of various holidays, one after another.
And then bam! Instead of having a little bit of downtime before the Lent starts, it came three days after the Chinese New Year. They’re still celebrating – even China Post hasn’t reopened – but Catholics (even Chinese Catholics) are called to begin preparations for Holy Week by uniting our sacrifices with the Passion of Christ.
It’s weird for me, but it must really suck for the Chinese. I remember one year when my birthday fell on Good Friday; it was hard to observe either holiday well because there’s no easy way to go half-and-half with those two. Most Chinese compare the Lunar New Year with Christmas, so – although Christmas is separated from Lent by definition – perhaps a comparable experience would be a December 28th Ash Wednesday.
It has really illustrated to me why we have bishops. The Church is universal, but that doesn’t mean every community throughout the world is a carbon copy of each other. It means that the truths of the faith transcend cultural differences, but those cultural differences can exist in conjunction with the tradition of the universal church. In America, this means that when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday in Lent, bishops of dioceses with large Irish populations usually grant a dispensation, lifting the obligations to fast or abstain on that day. This doesn’t have to be a universal announcement because in some parts of the world it’s not an issue.
Likewise with the Chinese New Year. While Pope Benedict is obviously aware of the celebration (he mentioned it in a noon address), the average priest in America is probably not aware of the holiday, or at least not its exact date. This is where bishops come in. Because they lead a much smaller group of Catholics, they are able to make decisions in light of the cultural, political, and social situations of their flock. In Beijing, they moved the beginning of Lent to this Sunday; in my area they’ve announced that the Chinese are freed from their obligations until the New Year’s celebration is over.
Anyway, one of the people who wished me a happy new year was Mr. Ma. He’s one of the first people I remember from church in Xiamen, probably because he’s crippled and therefore stands out even in a crowd of Chinese. I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with him, but his torso is twisted and disproportionately small, and he walked with crutches. (Actually, he might be the only disabled person I’ve seen in China who wasn’t a beggar. I think life must be very hard for them, and I wonder what support system he has that he seems to be doing so well.) I didn’t just notice him because of his appearance, though; he always gives me a huge smile which seemed to indicate a friendly soul. He was in the pew next to me and approached me after Mass to ask if I knew of someone willing to tutor in English and math.
After I told him I would look into it, he asked me if I lived at XiaDa and offered to take me home. It was raining, so I accepted. He gets around on a 3-wheeled motorbike with plenty of room for a passenger, so the ride home was quite comfortable. I imagine we were quite a sight – a tiny Chinese man and a foreigner driving through town on something the size of a riding lawnmower, crutches attached on the side.
Today was cold and rainy so I did not feel like going outside. I spent most of the day in bed, working on my computer or napping. I finished the other album of pictures that I wanted to post from our trip – they’re pictures of sights and scenery instead of the three of us, and they’re a little more artsy and arranged by theme. I went out only for dinner (where I met some more Americans, including a Minnesotan).
In random news, Hu Jintao was in Xiamen for the Chinese New Year? I can’t believe the president of the country visited my city and I was totally unaware.