A Reason to Remember: Experiencing Christian Truth Through Taoist Ancestor Worship

This past Sunday, my local church put on a Tomb sweeping service. It’s the first our church has ever done, and the first I have ever attended. And I found it to be deeply meaningful. Growing up in a Lutheran church for a while, and being part of this generation that seems to be moving away from consumerism and entertainment-driven worship and toward liturgy and a deeper connection to past, future, and community, I found it refreshing to be a part of this service. Now for those unfamiliar with the holiday, Taiwan celebrates Tomb Sweeping Festival on April 5. It’s a day off when families traditionally visit the family plot where their ancestors are buried, and, literally, sweep or clean it up. Cemeteries in Taiwan do not, to my knowledge, have groundskeepers or other employees. Thus it is the family’s duty to make sure grave sites are maintained. Traditionally this would be accompanied with burning incense or ghost money, making food offerings, and prayers to the ancestors for blessings. Personally, I love the fact that this holiday often falls around Easter time, as I think it can take on special meaning for believers. When I teach about the Easter story, I may even say that on the third day the disciples went to 掃墓, or sweep/visit the tomb of Jesus, only to find that He wasn’t there.

Understandably, believers in Taiwan can face a dilemma when it come to celebrating traditional holidays with pressure from their families to honor customs that may go against the teaching of the Bible. This is the very issue my church wanted to address. How can Christians still honor their families while not participating in idol worship during Tomb sweeping and other Chinese festivals? The pastor answered that in his sermon, and I’ll summarize below, but first I want to detail the service with a few reflections.

The service The service started of like a typical Sunday morning with a worship set, including one song mentioning the resurrection and Amazing Grace. The scripture reading came from Psalm 116:12-16 which was read as a congregation:

“What can I offer the Lord for all he has done for me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and praise the Lord ’s name for saving me. I will keep my promises to the Lord in the presence of all his people. The Lord cares deeply when his loved ones die. O Lord, I am your servant; yes, I am your servant, born into your household; you have freed me from my chains.“

Candles After that, there was a candle-lighting ceremony where the worship leader talked about the meaning, and then the people passed the light to each other. We had received the candles in an envelope when we entered the sanctuary. Once the candles were lit, there was a responsive reading. The basic gist was remembering our ancestors and being thankful that they gave us life, and being thankful to be part of their family line. In some ways, it reminded me of Christmas Eve candlelight services, but I thought it was a really neat way to visualize, as we symbolically passed the flame to each other, the way our ancestors have passed their lives and stories onto us.

Memorial Cards After blowing out the candles, we were instructed to fill out a memorial card, which was also included in the envelope. It had us reflect on a loved one who has passed away, writing down a memory and talking about something we learned from their legacy. Once we were finished, they had trees at the front and back of the room for people to hang their cards on. A few were selected to be read to the congregation as an expression of thankfulness for the effect they had on us and acknowledging their contribution to our lives. That was immediately followed by a moment of silence. It was understandably an emotional time for some. I reflected that just as we hung these memories on a tree, our savior, Jesus, was also hung on a tree. In my mind, there was some symbolism of us giving our pain and loss to Him, and remembering that He also gave His life for us.

Partaking This next part is a little hard for me to explain, but imagine a communion service, but with only the cup. Instead of wine, it was ‘water’ (actually tea) in the cups, and no bread was passed out. There were no restrictions on whether or not you were baptized; everyone was invited to partake. As the cups were being passed out, the pastor explained water represents that we all come from the same source and are united as humans who are born, live, die. It also reminds us that just as we need water to live, God is our source of life, and we are all created by Him. We drank together of that cup, united in our humanity, birth, life, losses, and hope.

Comparing experiences Then it was time for the sermon, where the pastor shared some of his own experience of growing up in a family that participated in “bai bai” or a Taoist-based form of traditional ancestor worship. People do this for many reasons, including desire for blessing, a fear of being cursed, and simply out of habit or obedience. He noted that in many respects, this ancestor worship is done out of a heart of love for family: a wish for blessings. But for him, the question was there – my grandparents say the same thing every time - do the ancestors hear? Do they eat the food offered? What does it really mean? When he became a Christian, he faced strong opposition from his family, especially as the oldest son. It was supposed to be his responsibility to keep up the tradition. A common view here is that if you don’t participate in “bai bai” you are saying you don’t care about your family, you don’t acknowledge who you are, you are showing disrespect for your parents, and you will bring bad luck to your relatives. In Taiwan, people may even be disowned for converting to Christianity.

He asked the question of why our ancestors would want to curse us, if they were our own flesh and blood. He also reminded us that our ancestors were human; they don’t in fact have the power to curse OR to bless us. That power lies with God alone. He emphasized, and I think that this is SO important: Obedience and respect for your family, and for those who came before is GOOD but worshipping them is not the only way to show that!

He then tied it back to the Bible, and talked about how important genealogies were, noting that a few other options for observing tomb sweeping festival could be to read out the name list of your relatives, here and gone, or to share memories of the things we still know about them. In the end, he asked, isn’t it more meaningful to love and respect them while they’re alive than to prepare a banquet in their name after they’re dead?

Final Thoughts I loved the symbolism of the service and both the ancient church-ness AND Chinese-ness of it. I think it’s important for people to honor and respect both their families and cultures when they come to know the Lord. In fact, it’s more important than ever to do it then, to show God’s love. These kinds of issues need to be approached with love and sensitivity, instead of a right/wrong or us/them polarization. I hope that this was helpful to new believers in our church who may be struggling with how to be a Christian witness in their families without making them feel rejected. Idol worship is real in Taiwan. Superstition informs behavior in the daily lives of so many. But as Christians, we know something precious. We know that death is not something to fear, because the one we follow has already overcome the grave.