Lunar New Years

Celebrating the New Year in the middle of winter is a strange idea, at first glance. As I have discussed before, January 1 is “Circumcision-style New Year,” based on the projected date of Jesus’ circumcision after the church had settled on December 25 as his birthday. In actuality, a winter New Year date is due to its proximity to the winter solstice, and the other popular contenders for the honor of the head of the year, historically, have been the spring and autumnal equinoxes. The matter gets more complicated when a culture has a lunar calendar since the sun and moon don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to their timing. That accounts, obviously, for a shortened February, but also for why a full moon doesn’t occur on the same day of each month. Now, I know little of Chinese culture, but I do know that Chinese New Year fell on January 28 this year, initiating the year of the rooster. Considering what had happened only eight days prior, this feels incredibly apt to me.

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Cultural diversity is a wonderful thing, and this nation is rich in it. You can, to pick a trite example, sample cuisines from around the world in a moderately sized town. Here in New Jersey getting onto a public transit bus will almost guarantee that you’ll hear at least one non-English conversation going on. Nevertheless I do have to confess that I don’t know what the year of the rooster represents in a Chinese context. As concepts cross borders they take on new associations and those who assign those new associations don’t represent those from the original land. So let it be here. Not knowing what the rooster symbolizes in China, I turn to its American expression—the cock. This is its year. The newspaper headlines read like a fortune cookie, in this distorted view of things.

To shift this metaphor to yet another cultural context—originally Jewish, but now appropriated by Christians around the world—think of Passover. For Jesus a night of betrayal. Peter, arguably Jesus’ best friend, denied three times in one night that he even knew his BFF. Cursing and swearing, according to the Gospels, he said, “I don’t know that man.” The cock crowed. It was around the spring equinox. A new year had begun. Within 24 hours, according to the story, Jesus was dead. We have much to learn from other cultures. The concepts change, however, when they’re stopped at the border.


Father Abraham’s Faith

Okay, so this is the scene: Abraham is old and he has just one son to whom a promise has been made (this is the biblical version, by the way). God had promised him that he’d have as many descendants as the stars in the sky, so it seem that Isaac has a long way to go. And the boy’s not married yet. Abraham calls in his trusted servant and gives lengthy, detailed instructions on how to go back to ancestral Iraq and find a wife for Isaac. Just to make sure the servant understands just how serious this is, Abraham says, “Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh,” (I can’t help thinking he added a big wink) and instructs him to swear to obey the instructions precisely. Readers of the Bible since at least the Middle Ages have recognized that “thigh” here really means genitals. The more we’ve learned of the ancient world the more we’ve discovered that men touching each other’s privates was a sign of a most serious oath—it’s a touch that can’t be taken back, and any promises made in this way must be kept.

I’ve been reading about monkeys. More precisely, about evolution. When reading about how baboons show intent to form an alliance, I was surprised to learn that males utilize scrotum-grasping. Since all’s fair in love and war, when baboons fight ripping off another guy’s jewels is considered perfectly acceptable. That means that allowing another male to fondle your testicles is a sign of ultimate trust. Baboons, it seems, have been doing it long since before Abraham showed up on the scene. I wonder if this then is a case of convergent evolution of whether Abraham’s oath goes back to nature in its most basic form. Once castrated, especially in antiquity, a man had no choice about going back. To invite another man to put his hands “down there” was a serious matter indeed.

The only requirement really given to Abraham by God was circumcision. Again, from what we know of ancient times this was not unique to Israel, but the theological freight associated with it was. For a man who’s been promised as many descendants as the sand on the sea shore, allowing another man to cut away part of your reproductive organs is a sign of ultimate trust. This is a behavior that seems not to go back to nature, however. Not even chimpanzees have quite figured out how to make knives or use them to carve up sensitive areas. This has none of the marking of evolution. An act like that seems to have come directly from the gods. Abraham, in a way most modern believers would find incomprehensible, was the paragon of faith.

Contemplating the ineffable