8917448_sa29ec8-1To come home you must first leave home. So the first time I came home for Chinese New Year reunion dinner was in early 1975. The year before, I had left Penang for Singapore to start my dental studies in the University of Singapore. Coming home from Singapore meant taking a bus from Golden Mile that travelled through the night and arrived in Penang the next morning. This was pre-highway days and the bus was air-conditioned naturally — you opened the windows and got blasted by the cold night air.

There were certain givens for our family’s reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s eve. We would have steamboat cooked with an old-fashioned slow-burning charcoal stove. It would get so hot that dad and I would take our shirts off or wear sleeveless vests at most. Mum would tease us for being indecent. And then dad would tell his war story — the one where he was buried under rubble when the building he worked in was bombed by allied bombers. And how he was rescued by a Japanese rescue team who cursed him because they were looking for Japanese survivors, not Chinese ones.

After dinner dad and I would have brandy on the rocks. (There was a certain pride in the fact that we Tans could hold our liquor.) You could already hear firecrackers and fireworks. A year came when dad and mum deemed me old enough to help them prepare the “ang pows” (red packets). I felt very proud that I was considered old enough to take part in this adult responsibility. The only ang pow I couldn’t prepare was my own. Dad and mum would smile and say that it was to be a surprise. The porch lights would be on and they were on in all the houses in the neighbourhood. “We must welcome the New Year with light and joy”, dad would say. At midnight every firecracker in the world would fire at the same time. Deafening joy. Happy New Year!

This Thursday evening we will be having our family reunion dinner. Much has changed. My darling and I flew back by a budget airline. We will be having steamboat again after a long time of not having done so. The table will be defined by who is there and who is not there. All the grandchildren will be there except Andrew who is working hard in his last semester in his university studies in Canada. Mum is older now and shows the signs of early dementia. I am sure we will have a great time. (We will have wine instead of brandy.) But we will miss those who are not there. We will miss Andrew (I know he will call), and we will miss dad. He has gone back to the Lord for more than ten years now. I miss his war story.

The Bible portrays heaven as this great reunion dinner. A number of the New Testament writers look back at this prophecy by Isaiah:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare

a feast of rich food for all peoples,

a banquet of aged wine –

the best of meats and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy

the shroud that enfolds all peoples,

the sheet that covers all nations;

he will swallow up death for ever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears

from all faces;

he will remove his people’s disgrace

from all the earth.

The Lord has spoken.

(Isaiah 25:6–8 NIV)

Here is the mother of all reunion dinners. It too will be marked by who will be there and who will not be there. God will be there. All who are supposed to be there will be there. But death will not be there. Sin will not be there. Tears will not be there. No more sadness.

When I lived away from Penang, I looked forward to going back to Penang for our reunion dinners. I still do. With the passing of the years however, reunion dinners also remind me of who is not at the table. All good things this side of heaven are but shadows and foretastes of the substance and the reality waiting in the new heaven and the new earth. Deep in our hearts we long for that final dinner. And with each passing year we are closer to home.