Chinese New Year
Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 90; James 4:13-15; Matthew 6:31-34
Picture: cc Ron Cogswell
Sisters and brothers, I think some of you may still remember this story: Once upon a time, there was a rooster who took himself very seriously. And he had good reason to do so. You see, the rooster was blessed with a very powerful voice. A voice that he made sure to exercise everyday by crowing loudly at the break of dawn. And, because he noticed that his crowing tended to coincide with the rising of the sun, the rooster began to think that the sun actually rose because of him. This made him feel very proud of himself. Even arrogant. Imagine. If not for him, the whole world would remain in darkness. So, he liked nothing better than to show off his crowing in front of others. He also took great care of his voice by regularly drinking ginseng tea mixed with honey and lemon. He even gathered some of the hens in his coop, and trained them very hard everyday. So that they could sing backup. To enhance the sound of his own voice.
But, as time went on, the rooster began to feel the pressure. If the whole world relied on him to make the sun to rise, then he couldn’t let everyone down. He had to be sure never to forget to crow early every morning. Even if he happened to have stayed out late the previous night. This sense of the heavy burden of responsibility placed on his shoulders often made him anxious. It gave him many sleepless nights. All of which made the rooster rather miserable. Day after day, he often found himself swinging between arrogance and anxiety. Sometimes even feeling both at the same time. But hardly was he ever truly happy. And all because he thought that he was the one who made the sun to rise. All because he took himself far too seriously.
Then, one day, the unthinkable happened. The rooster got a sore throat. He lost his voice. Perhaps it was the durians he had eaten the day before. We cannot say for sure. Whatever the reason, he was unable to crow. But, as we might expect, the sun rose all the same. This made the rooster fall into a deep depression. He stopped crowing. And even left his home in the chicken coop. What’s the point of crowing, he thought to himself, if it doesn’t actually cause the sun to rise?
The rooster’s sadness continued for a long time. Until one fateful afternoon, when he happened to hear a nightingale singing in a tree. It was such a beautiful sound that the rooster was moved to speak to the singer. He wanted to find out if its song actually made the sun to rise. Or the moon to shine. Or the stars to sparkle. But the nightingale shook its head and said, No. My singing does nothing of the sort. Then why do you even bother? The rooster asked. To which the nightingale laughed and replied, Why not? It makes me happy! I sing not to cause the sun to rise, but to celebrate its rising. Not to cause the moon to shine, but to celebrate its shining. Not to cause the stars to sparkle, but to celebrate their sparkling!
Hearing this reply, the rooster was enlightened. He returned to the chicken coop and went back to doing many of the things he used to do. He resumed crowing. He began, once again, to train and sing with his choir of chickens. But something was different. This time round, the rooster was far less arrogant and anxious. At times, he even felt truly happy. All because, having realised that he didn’t cause the sun to rise, he was able to stop taking himself quite as seriously as he did before.
Sisters and brothers, you might be wondering why, on this first day of the Year of the Monkey, I have chosen to tell you a story about a rooster. The answer is simple. The lesson learned by the rooster is very similar to the lesson that our Mass readings are trying to teach us today. Notice, for example, how the second reading warns us against arrogance. We are to be careful about taking our brief and fragile lives for granted. About planning too far ahead. For we never know what will happen tomorrow; we are no more than a mist that is here for a little while and then disappears. And notice too how, in the gospel, Jesus tells us not to be anxious. Not to worry about what we are to eat, nor about what we are to drink. Not to worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own.
Of course, if you are like me, you’ll find these warnings against arrogance and anxiety difficult to understand. Let alone to put into practice. They are difficult to accept so long as we share the rooster’s mistaken assumption that we can actually cause the sun of our own survival and success to rise, solely by our own efforts. For, however capable and talented we are, however farsighted and well-prepared we may be, our efforts can only take us so far. Many things remain beyond our control. People can suddenly fall critically ill and die. Wars may break out. Natural disasters may occur. Stock markets can crash without warning. And these things will happen no matter how many sleepless nights we may spend.
Of course, this does not mean that we should not work hard. Or that we should not plan at all. Or that our efforts are unimportant. They are very important. As people say, those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Precautions have to be taken. Responsibilities have to be borne. Work has to be done. But it makes all the difference in the world when we allow ourselves to accept that all these efforts of ours cannot actually ensure our survival and success. That our lives are not totally in our hands.
It is only when we allow ourselves to humbly accept this truth, that we learn the importance of doing what Moses and Aaron are learning to do in the first reading today. We learn to seek God’s help in all circumstances. We learn to entrust our wellbeing to the care and compassion of God at all times. We learn to keep praying that the almighty One–who could so easily sweep us away like grass which springs up in the morning and by evening withers and fades–will continue to bless us and keep us. Will ever uncover his face to us and bring us His peace.
And when we are able to entrust our lives to God in this way. When we are able to accept the truth that, however hard we may work, or however far ahead we may plan, we cannot actually cause the sun to rise. Perhaps we will also learn to take ourselves far less seriously. And learn to live the gift of life the way it is meant to be lived. Not as a heavy burden. But as a joyous celebration. Perhaps we may even experience what it feels like to be truly happy.
Sisters and brothers, on this first day of the Year of the Monkey, how is God teaching us you and me, the lesson of the rooster today?