Maria Holland

The Bittersweet Holiday

In Uncategorized on April 5, 2010 at 12:20 pm

[This post was intended for April 5th, the Chinese holiday of 清明节, known in the West as Tomb-Sweeping Festival.  It’s not related to the events of any day and is more personal than usual, but I promised to talk about Tomb Sweeping Day so here it is.]

In class last week, we learned about the origin of 清明节, the day in which Chinese people traditionally clean the tombs of their ancestors and burn money to support them in the afterlife.  The legend (involving a man who fed the emperor part of his thigh to save his life) apparently isn’t very well known in China anymore, even though the customs are still observed.  Our teacher described it as a day of 生和死一起, or life and death together.  Remembering the dead, obviously, is usually a very somber activity, but the timing of the holiday usually coincides well with the beginning of spring, often lending an air of joviality to the occasion.  Life and death, sadness and joy – bittersweet.

It reminds me of Memorial Day in America.  The teacher asked us if our countries have a similar holiday, and Memorial Day was the only remotely comparable thing I could come up with.  But aside from the physical cleaning of tombs, there are other similarities.  Intended as a day to remember and honor those who have died in war, it has become nearly synonymous with the end of school and homework, the beginning of summer and cookouts, and really big sales.  It’s bittersweet – life and death together, sadness and joy mixed.

清明节, fixed on the Gregorian calendar at April 5th, happens to fall on the birthday of one of my uncles.  Uncle Daniel (my father’s younger brother and thus my only 叔叔) would have been 46 this year, but he was killed in Iraq in May of 2006.  The theme of the day – sadness and joy mixed – reminded me of the day of his funeral.  After the solemn Mass and the burial with military honors, we had a party – complete with food, music, and dancing – to celebrate his life and enjoy the company of those who had gathered for the sad occasion.  That’s what I want it to be like when I go.  Bitter, but also sweet; death, but life also; sadness, but joy (and hope!) in its midst.

This year, according to the vagaries of the lunar calendar, 清明节 also happens to coincide with Easter – specifically, Easter Monday.  Somebody remarked on this coincidence, finding it interesting because we Christians believe that the tomb is empty now.  Jesus is risen; there’s no reason to clean it.  Jesus is risen, opening the gates of heaven; there’s no need to burn money for deceased loved ones to get in. 

But this combination, this mingling of sorrow and hope, is a very Catholic idea.  Even during the Easter Octave, the joyful peak of the liturgical year, we celebrate the Mass with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and call to mind Christ’s suffering for our sins.  This remembrance is concurrent with the faith that we have in Christ’s resurrection and the hope that we have in His promise to return.  Thus, even during the sorrow of Good Friday we look forward to Easter joy, and even during the triumph of Easter we recall the painful price of sin.  Christianity itself is a balance of the bittersweet – justice and mercy, death and resurrection, sadness and joy. 

I’m not the only one viewing the events of today in light of 清明节.  In an article about the miraculous rescue of nearly all the miners feared dead in a coal mine explosion 8 days before, the author made a connection to the significance of the holiday “called Tomb-Sweeping Day when Chinese commemorate the dead.”  While the entire incidence is troubling and there are still 38 miners unaccounted for, the rescue of 115 is certainly a cause for celebration. 

Out of death, life; tears of sadness and joy, mingling together – complicated emotions on this bittersweet holiday. 

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  1. beautiful blog Maria!

  2. I love you, and I know Uncle Daniel did too. Wish he was around to see the great things you’re doing, and to read your wonderful blogs. And to laugh at you some…

  3. I’m so glad you reposted this. Took me the 3rd time to read it, and so glad I did. Coffee and a doughnut, bitter and sweet, the flavors that make so much sense to me. Happy Easter and thanks for sharing.

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