Circannual rhythm

Chinese New Year is, well, a new year celebration. It marks the first day of the first month in the Chinese calendar. It usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice — when the tilt of the earth’s axis is most inclined toward or away from the sun, i.e., when the sunshine is weakest and daylight shortest. The Chinese have a festival to celebrate winter solstice, Dongzhi festival, where they will have a family reunion and eat glutinuous rice (a.k.a. onde). If Dongzhi festival is associated with winter, Chinese New Year then is associated with spring.

Many cultures around the world celebrate the beginning of spring, especially for the agrarian societies. Spring marks the time of growth, life, and beginning, and it means the time to sow new plants. And that’s why sometimes the beginning of spring is marked as the new year as well.

Israel is one of those societies which celebrates new year around spring, although for altogether different reason. Not for the beginning of sowing season, but to remember how the Lord brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, i.e., the Passover (cf. Exo 12). Hence, new year is rooted in God’s act. The basis of celebrating new year for the Israelites is theological. Moreover, since the Exodus happened only once, the Jewish calendar is continuously numbered and not cyclical, unlike, say, the Chinese new year. The year zero is significant for the Israelites. Year 2000 means it has been 2000 years since the Lord brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and so on. And spring symbolically represents the Exodus-Passover. Exodus begot a new nation, and appropriately it happens on spring.

Furthermore, Jesus took upon himself the calling to inaugurate the new Exodus, the new Passover. He is the Passover Lamb, and his death and resurrection marks the new Exodus. And, if the Exodus inaugurated a new calendar for the Israelites, the resurrection of Jesus had a similar effect. From then, the early disciples (most of them were Jews) held their congregational worship not on the last day of the week (Sabbath), but on the first day of the week, the day when Jesus was risen from the dead.

The more the church developed and evolved and was organized, the more it realized that there was the need to celebrate this event on an annual basis. And this is what we called as Easter now. Of course, there was difference in opinion of when the church should celebrate Easter. Should the church celebrate the Easter on the same day when the Jews celebrate the Passover, since Passover is a type of Easter? Or should the church celebrate it on Sunday, the first day of the week? And so, after years of debate and discussion, the consensus was to celebrate it on Sunday. And, similar with the original Exodus and Passover, Easter is appropriately celebrated on spring, since on Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, a new life out of the dead.

And then we started to have the liturgical year of the church. It started with the Advent, followed with Christmastide (Christmas followed by a few weeks), followed by Lent, followed by Easter, Pentecost, and the Ascension of Jesus, before we entered the Ordinary Time (around May to November). So we have our very own calendar, which perhaps indicates the inherent rhythmical nature of our life. Humans live in rhythm, and we pace our lives accordingly. A daily rhythm, a weekly rhythm, a monthly rhythm, and a yearly rhythm. If a daily rhythm is called circadian rhythm, then a yearly rhythm would be called a circannual rhythm.

The Lent itself started with Ash Wednesday, which commenced a period of forty days of fasting and mourning before we enter the Easter week. The forty days period is of course inspired from the biblical practice (e.g., temptation of Jesus on the desert).

And this year, Ash Wednesday nicely dovetailed the celebration of Chinese New Year. The Chinese New Year fell on February 14th and today is the Ash Wednesday. For those Chinese Christians who still observed the liturgical year of the church, it means a sumptuous feast that would be followed by a fasting period.

Happy Chinese New Year, happy Ash Wednesday, and happy observing the Lent period.


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