China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2006/Oct

Mooncakes, the moon and the Bible

Just as Easter comes early or late, depending on when the first full moon comes after March 21, so also most Chinese festivals are tied to the lunar calendar. Due to the leap month (閏月), the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節) came extremely late this year, so late that readers with a wide circle of friends may still have a refrigerator full of leftover mooncakes. These gifts often come in elaborate packaging, which looks more costly than the contents. Sometimes it is! The Chinese government has spoken out against gift boxes, which also contain an expensive present, such as a gold ring, since they were being given, not as a tokens of friendship, but as bribes.

Both large and small mooncakes are usually filled with red bean paste. They may be sweet or salty, sweet and salty, or spicy. Stuffed with nuts or ham or even chocolate, they usually have a yellow duck egg in the centre to symbolise the full moon. There are also vegetarian mooncakes, but even these contain sugar. A diabetic in Taiwan overdosed on mooncakes and got seriously ill. Too much of a good thing is not good. The Chinese characters on top are either lucky words, or else an advertisement from the bakery.

At the end of the Yuan (元) dynasty (1279-1368), Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) planned to overthrow the Mongol conquerors, who did not have a taste for moon cakes. He distributed moon cakes with secret messages inside, thus achieving the element of surprise in his successful rebellion. Moon cakes were already a treat associated with the autumn harvest and had a few centuries of history behind them.

The moon and Hebrew festivals

In the Bible, the moon plays a prominent role. All of the feast days listed in Leviticus 23, require a sacred assembly. The first festival listed is the weekly sabbath rest. A sabbath can come at any phase of the moon. The seven-day week was unknown in ancient Greece, Rome or China, but religion and commerce gradually spread it around the world. Sometimes religion and commerce send contradictory messages. Sunday is the first day of the week, but confusing the liturgical week with the work week has led to Monday, the second day of the week, being called the “first day” (星期一) in Chinese, and the mismatch continues through Saturday, the seventh day. Chinese misnumber the Hebrew Sabbath, the day on which God rested (Gen. 2:3), as the “sixth day” (星期六). Some Christians argue passionately about this issue. Others regard it as a minor convention, such as whether to call the street level of a building the ground floor or the first floor.

The five major feasts of the Hebrew year are tied to the moon. The full moon in the first month marks Passover, followed by a week of eating unleavened bread. After seven weeks comes the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, from the Greek word for fiftieth day. In English-speaking countries, “I haven’t seen you in a week of Sundays,” means “I haven’t seen you for some time,” since people used to wear their “Sunday best” clothing and meet each other in church. But now Sunday is a day of shopping, much like any other day, and thus well-dressed residents of the secular city seldom say “a week of Sundays” anymore.

Changes in calendars

The Hebrew New Year started with a new moon and the blowing of a ram’s horn on the first day of the seventh month (Lev. 23:24). Due to the centrality of the Exodus, the starting point shifted. “This month shall stand at the head of your calendar” (Ex. 12:2), referred to the first month of spring. For that matter, the Latin numbers from seven to ten are obvious in the names of the months from September through December, the ninth through the twelfth months of our solar year. The ancient Roman year originally began with March, named after Mars, the god of war, when the snow started to melt and soldiers prepared to march to war again. Two months of the summer were renamed July and August after Julius Caesar and his nephew Augustus. When Jesus was about to begin his public life, the Roman Senate proposed renaming September in honor of Emperor Tiberius. He promptly and wisely ended that flattery with the question, “And what will you do for the thirteenth Caesar?” Otherwise we would now have a month named in honor of Nero.

A few centuries ago, the new year started in April in France. After New Year’s Day was transferred to January 1, some people were confused on April 1. They were labelled “April Fools.”

But not everyone shares the feast

Returning to Leviticus, the tenth day of the new year was the Day of Atonement, a day of strict fasting (Lev. 23:26-33). But when the moon was full a few days later, the Feast of Booths began, an octave of joy and celebration for all (Lev. 33-36).

An old, worldwide problem is that rich people observe the feast days while poor people keep the fast days. One ancient Chinese poet noticed that meat and wine spoiled in the homes of the rich after long storage, while on the street people were collapsing from hunger. Isaiah denounced a fast day that “ends in quarreling and fighting, striking with wicked claw,” whereas “a day acceptable to the Lord,” involves “releasing those bound unjustly… Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them and not turning your back on your own” (Is. 58:4-7). Amos denounced the overfed women of Samaria as “cows” who oppressed the weak, crushed the needy and drank too much (Amos 4:1). Micah spoke even stronger words against leaders who exploited the poor (Mi. 3:1-5). Today, what would the prophets have to say about gold moon cakes?

Feeding body and soul

Just as mooncakes have become tastier over the centuries, so has the menu for Passover. References to how food was prepared are scarce in the Bible. Neither bananas nor chocolate were available at the Exodus, but now they are optional flavorings, along with almonds and apricots. Thousands of recipes for Passover are posted on the Internet. The ingredients sound tasty, even for matzoh, a hard, unleavened cracker. The fact that certain foods were prohibited simply made the chefs more creative with the list of kosher ingredients. Much thought and love have gone into the production of fine foods to be shared with family and friends on special days.

Today we often speak of inviting people to a party, while in earlier centuries the stress was on an invitation to a banquet. Hard manual labor combined with a restricted diet in the old days kept most people thin. Food and more food was the high point of a celebration. A huge amount of fatty food once every other month was good for an underweight body. But today rich food is no longer a rarity in many places and obesity has become an evident problem. Food is everywhere in a city like Hong Kong, but so is loneliness, and depression is more common than in previous generations. So the focus has shifted from eating to partying, when like-minded people gather to talk, sing and socialise. A party is not necessarily good for an underfed soul; it all depends on who is partying.

The Lord’s Supper then and now

When it comes to liturgy, the style is conservative. The altar bread used at Mass has a basic, even bland, recipe, like the earliest matzoh. Perhaps this also reflects 1 Cor 5:8, which speaks of celebrating the Passover “with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The house churches in Corinth combined the Lord’s Supper with a meal, as at the Last Supper, yet the early birds were eating and getting drunk while latecomers got only crumbs. This led St. Paul to the harsh criticism “It is not the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). As congregations grew larger, the liturgy had to be kept distinct from the main meal for the day. Coffee and cookies in the parish hall after Mass are fine, but snacking in the pews is banned. Long ago, a period of fasting before holy communion was added for spiritual preparation and fasting from midnight was mandatory within living memory of older people.

Our Lady and the moon

A Catholic artist from Taiwan notes that the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where Mary is standing on the crescent moon, is not popular with Chinese Catholics. They love European images of Our Lady of Lourdes, Fatima or Medjugore, but for some reason the darker skinned Virgen does not adorn their churches or homes. The moon and the stars, plus the sun hidden behind her, are somewhat similar to the picture in Revelation 12:1.Yet any European in 1531 would have drawn the stars as a crown on her head, not as adornments on her cape. The image shows a profound knowledge of the Aztec culture. How was it produced? There is no way to demythologise an artifact!

Since the moon is so prominent in Chinese culture, maybe some clever graphic artist, a dozen full moons from now, will use biblical or church motifs to package and sell moon cakes. Can this be done respectfully and tastefully? Remember, neither Christmas trees nor Easter eggs originated in a biblical setting.