Lunar New Year Mass, Xavier School
Chinese animal zodiac signs have always been part of the fun of our Lunar New Year celebrations. We are all familiar with its 12-year cycle but not everybody is aware that it is actually part of a bigger 60 year cycle, nor is it well known that each birth year is also assigned to any one of the five elements, with each one of those either a Yin or a Yang. They are even paired off with celestial stems but I am not getting into that. For instance, 16th February 2018 – 4th February 2019 is the year of the Yang Earth Dog. If you are 12, 24, 36, or 48 years old this year, you probably belong to the Dog sign, but only those who will be 60 this year, as well as those born this year, are classified as Yang Earth Dogs. Others are Fire (72 and 12 years old), Metal (48), Water (36), and Wood (24) dogs. Complicated, isn’t it?
In Putonghua, the term for Zodiac is sheng xiao or literally “born resembling” or “born to be like”. I’m a tiger and a primary Yang attribute is said to be courage, which supposedly balances also my Yin attribute of impulsiveness. Good news, tigers are supposed to be compatible with Yang Earth Dogs.
However, this is as far as I will go with zodiac signs. Zodiac signs are fun and have their use but as Christians, we don’t believe that we should conform to whatever the calendar says about us. We believe that the timing of our birth neither describes our personality, nor does it predetermine our fate. In other words, our birth does not necessarily dictate what we resemble; it does not tell us what we will be like.
This does not mean, however, that we cannot take more interest in this piece of Chinese tradition, combine it with our religious heritage, and reflect on it as we celebrate the New Lunar Year.
I was thinking about all these animals and what our Catholic tradition has to say about them. Which animals of the Chinese zodiac find their way into the Bible and our christian tradition? I think that some animals would easily come to mind: the snake at the feet of the Immaculate Conception, the ox as a symbol of St. Luke the evangelist, St. Peter and the rooster that signaled his denial of Jesus, the goats separated from the sheep at the final judgment, the dragon and horses of the Book of Revelation, and of course, the pigs who kept the Prodigal Son company. The other animals we will probably find in the Book of Leviticus among the list of forbidden food for the Jews.
The dog is particularly interesting. In the Chinese zodiac, the dog attribute is fidelity. We love our dogs above all for their loyalty. I think most of you are familiar with the story of Hachiko. If not, then maybe Scooby Doo or Lassie will do it for you. However, we are surprised to learn that in Ancient Israel, it looks like the dog was not known for nice things. It did not have a very good image.
In the Old Testament, dogs were hardly kept as pets; they were seen more as wild animals and scavengers, probably closer to wolves from which we know they descended. Though there are some accounts of them as companions in shepherding and hunting, the attribution in ancient Israel is largely negative. It was an insult to be compared to a dog. Probably because they ran wild and were uninhibited; they were predatory (remember how Jezebel died?). This made them unclean and it didn’t help that they were constantly licking their wounds or the wounds of others (remember Lazarus?), even described in the book of Proverbs as having the habit of returning to their own vomit.
Lest we forget, dogs were also mentioned in the Gospel account of the Syro-Phoenician woman begging the Lord for her daughter to be healed. Jesus had initially referred to this foreigner as a dog, as opposed to his description of the Israelites as God’s children, for whom his mission was intended. He initially expressed that his healing powers were reserved for the children, the Jewish people, and not for the foreigners, or the dogs. But despite this seeming rejection, the woman did not lose her faith and argued for the crumbs at the table, like dogs begging for leftovers that the children could not finish. Eventually, she won the Lord over with her wit, determination and faith. This is one dog in Scripture who is worthy of our admiration.
It took a number of years before dogs actually gained a more positive image in Christian tradition. For instance, in the Middle Ages, the dog gradually shifted from being a sign of the devil to an icon of fidelity. Perhaps because the dogs became hunting companions of the aristocrats, the dogs found their way in religious art as symbols of loyalty. A sleeping dog became the symbol of a certain docility and tameness that was expected of the Christian believer.
In fact, the dog name FIDO comes from the Latin word Fide which means “faith.” The dog eventually made its way to family crests and other symbols depicting faith.
Two famous saints have dogs in their iconography. Legend has it that San Roque (or St. Roch) was fed by a dog with bread when he was sick from the plague. His sores were said to be healed by this dog which cured him by licking those wounds. Saint Dominic is sometimes depicted with a dog with a torch in its mouth to set the world on fire with God’s Word. Black and white dogs have come to symbolize the Dominicans, partly due to the phrase, Domini canes which means “dogs in the Lord”. Here, finally, the positive Yang attribute of fidelity of the Dog zodiac matches the image depicted in Christian art and iconography- the dog as a symbol of faithfulness.
Another positive development happened in literature. Have you read any of the Lord of the Rings books or watched any of the movies? JR Tolkien was said to have admired an English poet named Francis Thompson who is famous for the poem The Hound of Heaven. Thompson suffered through many troubles in his life, including depression and drug addiction. He wrote:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears, I hid from him….
Thompson felt that many times, he was running away from God, escaping him, not wanting to be found by him. The Hound of Heaven depicts God, believe it or not, as a dog which continually pursues the wayward soul to bring it to redemption. Thompson reflected his personal image of God in his poetry: a God who is relentless in his pursuit, one who never tires in seeking and finding, continually calling us back to him. This God is the dog, the hound of heaven, the God who is faithful. You do realize that “dog” spelled backwards is- G-O-D.) Has the Hound of Heaven been hounding you as well? What were those times in our lives when you experienced a faithful God who did not give up on you, even when you have already lost hope in yourself?
So, this week, as we kick off the year of the dog, we reflect on what Christian tradition has depicted through the image of this loveable creature. Wild and unclean, the dog in the Jewish tradition did not have a desirable image. But as in all things touched by God, even the most undesirable can become exemplary symbols of what God’s grace can do. A foreigner, depicted as a dog, was humble and steadfast, gaining the admiration of the Lord for her extraordinary faith. Throughout the Middle Ages, the dog further symbolized that faithfulness- expressed in this creature’s dependence, loyalty, and sense of service. And finally, our very God himself, depicted in Victorian poetry, as the faithful dog who untiringly pursues us, never giving up until he wins us over. We try our best, with God’s grace, to be faithful. But in the end, we will discover that it is only possible because our God himself is the truly Faithful One.
Maybe I was wrong after all. There is some truth to the words shengxiao, if we are willing to widen our perspective. Our birth does determine what we resemble. But perhaps, it is better to say, our birth determines whom we resemble. Created in God’s image and likeness, we already know who we are supposed to be like, even before we were born. We are all made to be like our faithful God, the Hound of Heaven. May we all grow, in this Year of the Dog, to be faithful to our God, to learn from his own faithfulness to us. Regardless of what sign we have been born under, we are in that sense, all dogs- not wild stray, predatory, unclean animals, but trusting puppies, lovingly waiting at the feet of the Master, confident about the morsels called love and grace that will come our way. Happy New Year!