Season of Lent and Season of the New Year: God’s Gift of Grace to Us

Homily – Mass for Celebration of the Lunar New Year
By Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone
Archbishop of San Francisco
St. Mary’s Cathedral; February 21, 2015

This year the penitential season of Lent and the joyful celebration of Chinese New Year begin at the same time.  While the ashes and somber violet vestments seem worlds away from the dancing dragons, paper lanterns, and banquets that mark the lunar New Year, there are some interesting similarities.  Both the Spring Celebration and the penitential season take place when days grow warmer and plants begin to bud; in fact our word “Lent” comes from an Old English word for “springtime”.  Both involve an effort to “clean house” and sweep away evil influences.  Both are marked with a festive banquet, and both conclude at the full moon with a celebration with many lights.  Even the Asian custom of venerating ancestors resonates with our liturgical tradition of readings about the heroic figures of the Old Testament during this season.  I invite you to see the two-week long Chinese New Year celebration as a synopsis of the Lent and Easter seasons, during which we celebrate Christ’s victory over the powers of evil.

Good Fortune and Divine Providence
There is one important aspect in which these events differ, or, perhaps it would be better to say, where the Christian season gives a more precise meaning to the lunar celebration.  There is much talk of “good fortune” or “prosperity” for the New Year; an understandable sentiment, and one which we also find echoed in the western New Year celebrations.  But as Christians, we do not believe in luck – we believe in providence.  It is good to wish one another well at the beginning of a new year, but we must understand that God’s blessings do not always mean a life of untroubled prosperity.  Quite the opposite: as we read through the events of salvation history, we see that God’s gifts often come wrapped in adversity.  The Jews who in the first reading celebrate their deliverance from Egypt will soon be grumbling in the desert, and hankering for “the good old days” when they were slaves.  They had to learn that God’s providence cannot be equated with material prosperity and wealth; it is at work even when, humanly speaking, our lives are beset with difficulty.

The readings for our liturgy today have been chosen with an eye to the fact that this is the Year of the Goat (or the Sheep or Ram, according to different interpretations of the Chinese word).  And so the Church sets before us the consoling figure of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.  The Lord explains very vividly the difference between a good shepherd and a hireling: the hireling takes off as soon as trouble appears.  He is what we would call a “fair weather friend”.  In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the English writer Edward Gibbon describes a Byzantine emperor who was deposed and thrown into prison, and observes, “This turn of events permitted him to distinguish the friends of his person from the associates of his fortune”.  Christ is the friend who does not abandon us when human prosperity does.

Sheep and Shepherd
More than that, he tells us that the mark of the Good Shepherd is that he lays down his life for his sheep.  The Shepherd becomes a lamb, the Passover Lamb whose death delivers us from death.  The crucifixion of Jesus was not “bad luck”, a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He states very plainly that this was something he wanted to happen: “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own” (Jn 10:17-18).  It was a terrible event, and humanly speaking a tragedy.  But at the core of our faith is the conviction that it was from this event, awful in itself, that our salvation came.  Not just a new year, but a new eternity.

Christ is the Shepherd who leads us through the valley of darkness and the shadow of death into the pastures of eternal life.  We are each his sheep, but we are not a faceless flock.  Another characteristic of our Shepherd is that “he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (Jn 10:3).  Christ knows each of us individually, and he loves each one of us not only infinitely but uniquely.  He is like a mother who loves each of her little ones in a special way.  That is why we are told in our second reading: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.  Yet so we are” (1 Jn 3:1).  God’s providence does not just embrace the big picture, bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number of people; it is tailored to each of us, and is at work in every moment of our lives.

This truth has been captured artistically in the majestic sculpture over the entrance to our cathedral, and I invite you to take a few minutes to study it when you leave church today.  At the center stands the strong, heroic figure of the risen Christ, the “great shepherd of the sheep brought back from the dead” (see Heb 13:20), flanked by two angels.  I am told that the artist originally planned to place two rows of sheep at his feet, but it was suggested instead that he depict men, women, and children.  On one side we see people approaching Christ through different vocations, on the other people of various races presented by Mary to her Son as one human family.  As we now celebrate the Eucharist which proclaims the death of the Lord until he comes, let us give thanks for this New Year, a season of grace which is God’s gift to us.  And when, in forty days, the annual Chinese commemoration of the dead, Qing Ming, falls on Easter Sunday, let us rejoice that it is in the risen Christ that we are united with our departed family members and friends.