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Blessings in the Midst of Woes

Huichun or red banners with words of good wishes or blessings. Huichun designed by Paulette Fong, a student major in Art and Education.

This year, Lunar New Year fell on the first of February. Traditionally, the New Year celebrations last till the fifteenth day of the first month of the Lunar Calendar, namely the Yuanxiao Festival or the Lantern Festival. The New Year is a time of family reunion and visiting relatives and friends. However, in the midst of the pandemic, the families in Hong Kong had to limit celebrations and home visits. During New Year time, huichun or red banners with words of good wishes or blessings (usually in the form of four or five Chinese characters) are posted on walls. The popular words of huichun usually include meanings of good health, good spirit, good business, good fortune, good performance in study, good relationship or harmony in family. Since this year celebrates the Year of the Tiger according to the Chinese Zodiac, when people greet each other, they would say “Wishing you as active or powerful as a tiger” [龍精虎猛]. The transliteration of tiger is bitter, thus, people would also say “Joy in Tiger (bitterness)” [虎(苦)中作樂]. Many people also like to put the Chinese character blessing [福] – fu – upside down on the door or wall, symbolizing blessings has reached their home. This Chinese custom denotes the Chinese cultural tradition that blessings are often refers to happiness, longevity, wealth, prosperous, auspicious and so on.

However, this year when we greeted each other during the Lunar New Year, we were full of heavy feelings, or even conflict feelings. In the past few years, due to the social unrest in 2019 and its aftermath as well as the COVID-19 pandemic that Hong Kong has gone through, the trauma, sufferings and suppressed mood that people experienced are unprecedented. Since the pandemic has persisted for more than two years, the New Year wishes of many people are to hope that the pandemic will subside as soon as possible. Yet, even before the Lunar New Year, there was a fifth wave outbreak of the pandemic in Hong Kong, and the situation continues to deteriorate. The number of infected people consistently increases, and the medical system is overloaded. Due to the strict social distancing measures and vaccination policy proposed by the local government, many businesses have been forced to close down. Many workers have lost their jobs or had their salaries cut. Such situation does not seem to give a promising start of the year or sign of blessings.

Meanwhile, the socio-political situation is no better than the pandemic. The social atmosphere is still hostile after the 2019 social unrest. A number of politicians, social activists and young people have been arrested after the protests. Some are still in detention for over a year without trial. They are separated from their families at a time of family reunion.   Others were released after serving their sentences. Among the released youth, many face difficulties of finding schools or jobs. Moreover, as social control became tighter and tighter, many non-governmental organizations and a few popular media were forced to close down in the past year. The civil society has shrunk. Many people also worry about the academic freedom and freedom of speech in education and the public arena. Furthermore, religious freedom in Hong Kong is uncertain. From the experiences of the Church in China over the past decades, religious freedom in Hong Kong may be withered in the future. Can the Catholic Church be able to evangelize and transmit its values as in the past is a question to ponder. Are these blessings or woes?

As a result, many people feel disappointed, helpless, depressed, frustrated, and even hopeless. Some choose to leave Hong Kong and start a new life in another place, such as Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia in which these countries offer special plan for migration. Among them are parishioners, students, teachers, and principals with their families in Catholic schools, and social workers of Catholic welfare agencies. Nevertheless, there are still many people choose to stay with other comrades in Hong Kong and look for ways of survival in their hometown.

In the view of these situations, as Christians, how should we understand blessings? Who are considered to be blessed? Can we find blessings in the midst of woes?

Jesus’ sermon on the plain according to the Gospel of Luke (6:20-26) gives us some cues to reflect the present day Hong Kong or other similar situations. In the sermon, Jesus identified four kinds of people who are blessed, namely those who are poor; hungry; weeping; and being hated, excluded, insulted and denounced as evil. In contrast, Jesus pointed out woes are to those who are rich, full, laughing, and admired. This is opposite to the values of the secular world, including the Chinese culture.

Jesus said so because people of his time, in the context of Luke’s community, was experiencing poverty, hungry, sadness and exclusion or denouncement due to their identity as lower class or foreigners. Jesus wanted to bring hope to people in spite of the difficulties and sufferings. Since these people had nothing to depend on, they could only depend on God. Such phenomenon was not the target of blessing but these experiences brought people get closer to God and receive blessings from God. In turn, they share God’s blessings with others. Whereas for those who were rich and admired by others, some were too occupied with wealth, fame, and power but forgot God. Their earthly blessings were indeed short term. Since many of them were getting further away from God, they would be in woes when came to the final judgment.

The view of standing on the plain is different from that on the mountain. The vision on the mountain is wider and further whereas the view from the plain is limited. Giving the sermon on the plain, Jesus in Luke’s account saw not only the twists and turns of the road, but also the end point, which was different or even opposite to what people usually saw. Jesus saw, at the end, the hungry will be fed, the weeping will rejoice, the poor will inherit the Kingdom of God, and the reproached will be richly rewarded in heaven. So even if, at present, people have nothing, seemingly helpless and isolated, and even misunderstood and insulted, the destination is still bright.

With this sermon, Luke reminds us that not only did Jesus point out that there is a way out in the undesirable situation, but that he wanted to be our companion and we can lean on him. With experiences of being abandoned and insulted like other human beings, Jesus fully understands people’s sufferings. When we complain against the woes and cannot see the future, having doubts and anxieties, Jesus would share our struggles, trying to comfort and encourage us. Thus, employing moral imagination, Jesus’ sermon on the plain informs us in Hong Kong that in spite of the existing vulnerable situations under the pandemic or socio-political situation, God’s blessings are still there. We should have trust in God and let the Holy Spirit transform this darkness into brightness. Meanwhile, we can be his agent of change in our own location by doing whatever we can.

This sermon indeed emphasizes on being rather than doing, that is, who we are and what our relationship with God is. When we are rooted in the being of Christ by becoming the beatitudes, actions will flow from our being, enabling us to share friendship and love with others. Out of solidarity, when we try to meet the material and spiritual needs of other people like Jesus, comforting those who are in hunger, isolation and excluded, there is blessings of God. In fact, many people are trying to do this in small ways, bringing the blessings of God to others.