By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY— Tet, the most important annual celebration in Vietnamese culture, fell on Jan. 28, bringing in the Lunar New Year of the Rooster.
There wasn’t an empty seat in the Church of the Holy Martyrs, since 1991 the personal church of the Vietnamese Catholic community on both sides of the state line, for the celebration of the annual Tet Mass. The interior of the church was bright with flowering yellow mums, and the gorgeous outfits of many of the women and children.
Tet, short for Tet Nguyên án, which is Sino-Vietnamese for Feast of the First Morning of the First Day, celebrates the arrival of Spring. Based on the Vietnamese calendar, the lunar new year usually falls in January or February.
The choir sang the entrance hymn and an honor guard of children lined the center aisle of the church as Father Dominic Duc Nguyen, Father Joseph Phan Trong Hanh and Deacons Diem Nguyen, Doan Tran and Tuyen Pham, followed by Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., processed to the sanctuary.
Wearing celebratory gold vestments, Bishop Johnston, principal celebrant of the Mass, welcomed the congregation and the Lunar new year, the Year of the Rooster, jokingly adding that “all of you born in the year of the rooster, you are not allowed to crow until Mass is over. No crowing at Mass!”
“Thank you for this celebration, and for those of you who strive to hand on the faith generation after generation,” he continued. “It’s so important to hand on the precious gift of our faith to our children and grandchildren. This celebration is a beautiful expression of our faith in culture, a beautiful expression of faith and culture.
“One of the things we cherish as human beings is the desire for happiness. We all want to be happy, right? … Even in the founding documents of the United States of America, there’s a recognition that all people want to be happy. It’s expressed in the Declaration of Independence that this is a right. There are certain rights the Creator gives everyone: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, and the government is supposed to protect those rights.
“In our quest for happiness, we search for it in many things … often temporary … often the things we think will make us happy, don’t make us happy.”
The bishop recounted the story of the Greek king, Midas. He thought that gold would make him happy and wished to be able to turn everything he touched into gold. His wish granted, he “ran around turning everything he touched into gold, and was happy. Then his lunch, spring rolls, was served. Turning everything to gold had made him hungry. When Midas reached out and touched a spring roll, it turned to gold. Uh oh! You can’t eat gold, which made him sad. Then his little girl, his beloved daughter, ran in and he hugged her, turning her to gold, Midas realized that the thing he thought would make him happy was in fact making him very sad.
“Life is more than gold,” Bishop Johnston reminded the congregation. “In fact, the greatest things in life are more important than gold.” He said the story of King Midas is a lesson about what brings us true happiness … “only God can bring us enduring, lasting, true happiness.”
Citing the readings for the Mass, he said that “happiness is a gift from God … every good … perfect gift extends from above, from the Father’s lights. He knows what we want before we ask.”
The story of Creation in Genesis suggests that “the key to our happiness … is to realize the good gifts we have been given, starting with the gift of life.” He then recounted participating in the March for Life in Washington, D.C., the day before, and “joining several hundred thousand young people, marching for the unborn, those whose gift of life is threatened.” He added that it was also a March of Thanksgiving, the recognition that our lives are the first gift we receive from God. Happiness begins with that recognition and being grateful for it.
“Happiness is a choice we make,” he said. “It doesn’t just happen to us.” Believing that happiness is a result of luck or love can cause worry. By believing that happiness is a choice we make and that happiness is God’s gift to us, “we can choose to be happy in any and all circumstances, secure in the love of Jesus Christ. Each of us should become aware of that love. God made us for happiness. Let us recognize the gift and choose to be happy.”
Near the end of Mass, Bishop Johnston was seated at the head of the center aisle and presented with a bouquet of flowers and a large bowl filled with small red envelopes. The children lined up, followed by the elderly and the rest of the congregation, to receive the small envelopes. According to Vietnamese tradition, the envelopes are good luck pieces and, in family gatherings, usually contain money from the elders to the children. The red envelopes Bishop Johnston gave out contained a dollar bill.
The Dragon Dance, performed in front of the church following the Mass, was watched with wide smiles and eager children holding out red envelopes to “feed” the dragon. Firecracker sounds “warded off evil spirits.” The dancers were led by drum beats and a dancer with a fan.
The dragon and the snake were both manned by dancers of the Fun Lans (Fun Lions) Club. The lan is a cross between a lion and a dragon, an Asian symbol of power and good, while the snake symbolizes evil. The vanquishing of the snake is the power of good over evil. Thus, good things happening for the Church of the Holy Martyrs and its parishioners. According to Vietnamese tradition, if good things come to a family (here the parish family) on the first day of the Lunar New Year, the rest of the year will be full of blessings.
Chúc Mng Nm Mi! (Best wishes for the New Year!)