Moderator’s note: This post is part of our short series “Liturgy in Migration.” This series is based on the new Liturgical Press book Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace.

by Jonathan Y. Tan

The task of liturgical inculturation that seeks to integrate liturgical worship within a community’s sociocultural tradition may appear to be deceptively simple, but in reality is fraught with difficulty over determining who gets to define a community’s sociocultural tradition and defining the ambit of tradition. Many first-generation Asian American Catholics perceive tradition as invariant and immutable, anchoring their identity in a turbulent new world of the contemporary U.S. society and representing an authoritative and prescriptive precedent that they brought with them from their Asian motherland to their adopted land of the U.S., which they hope to transmit to their children. The first wave of Asian American Catholic liturgical inculturation assumed a romanticized and essentialized understanding of tradition that defines culture and identity as homogeneous and normative. The problem with this approach is its nostalgic tendency to reify and idealize tradition, while ignoring its limitations. The failure to engage in critical reflections on its shortcomings is often justified by the need to ensure the uninterrupted intergenerational transmission of cultural traditions and values in the face of the difficult challenges of dislocation, discrimination, and assimilation in the U.S. as migrants.

For example, while first-generation Chinese American Catholics have perceived ancestor veneration as a definitive element of being Chinese and incorporated this ritual into an inculturated Lunar New Year Eucharist, younger U.S.-born Chinese American Catholics rightly question whether an uncritical use of ancestor veneration ignores its underlying problems. Ancestor veneration emphasizes maleness and male succession, marginalizing the position and roles of women who are traditionally excluded in the ritual’s patrilineal and patriarchal orientation. It also a ritual reminder of submission and obedience to elders in a world where younger Chinese Americans, especially women, bi/multiracial, and Chinese adoptees of White American families are searching for new and meaningful identities. Indeed, the ritual’s emphasis on submission, filial piety, patriarchy, and patrilineality are incongruous with the aspirations of younger U.S.-born Chinese American Catholics.

I propose that contemporary Asian American liturgies move away from tradition-maintenance, that is, clinging uncritically to traditions and customs from the “Old World” in favor of what I call traditioning, which I define as the largely unconscious and ongoing process of shaping and negotiating new traditions and practices that seek to address the issues confronting all Asian Americans, be they immigrant, U.S.-born, bi/multiracial, or adopted. The process of traditioning is based upon the premise that tradition is dynamic and contextual, rather than static. Liturgical traditioning questions simplistic and uncritical reproductions of the past, rejecting attempts at fossilizing or archaizing the present in a state of stasis. Instead, liturgical traditioning entails critical reflections about a community’s present liturgical worship. By going beyond uncritical replication of historical precedents, liturgical traditioning pursues strategic, dynamic, creative, and contextualized interpretations that seek to mediate between historical precedents and current concerns, thereby endeavoring to create a coherent liturgical worship that unites the rich legacy of tradition with contemporary needs and challenges.

Traditioning also reminds us that traditions can evolve in response to new contexts. For example, it is clear that the Lunar New Year continues to hold a special significance for Chinese Americans and having a liturgical celebration is similar to celebrating Thanksgiving Day with a Eucharist in the U.S. Perhaps the highlight of the Lunar New Year Eucharist could be something besides ancestor veneration with its baggage of Confucian patriarchy and misogyny. Other aspects of the Lunar New Year celebration, such as forgiveness of past transgressions, generosity and kindness toward others, and thanksgiving for abundant blessings could be emphasized.

Jonathan Y. Tan is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religions at the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy of Australian Catholic University (Sydney Campus), having previously taught at Xavier University in Cincinnati and The Catholic University of America. He holds a MA in Liturgical Studies from the Graduate Theology Union/Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and a Ph.D. in Religion and Culture from The Catholic University of America. A classically trained organist and pianist, he is also organist for the Sydney campus of ACU and Mary Mackillop Chapel of the Sisters of Saint Joseph in North Sydney, and was previously Assistant Organist at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Singapore from 1988 to 1996 and several Episcopal and Roman Catholic parishes in California, Washington DC, and Cincinnati. For more information, please visit: www.jonathantan.org

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