“The interpreter had placed before his feet a wooden plaque. On it was a copper plate on which a Japanese craftsman had engraved that man’s face. It was not a Christ whose face was filled with majesty anf glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance of pain; nor was it a face filled with the strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet was sunken and utterly exhausted.”
“Many Japanese had already trodden on it, so that the wood surrounding the plaque was black with the print of their toes. And the face itself was concave, worn down with the constant treading. It was this concave face that had looked at the priest in sorrow. In sorrow it had gazed up at him as the eyes spoke appealingly: ‘Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on you that I am here.'”
This passage from Silence, written by Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, is the pivotal point of the entire novel for me. When I think of Japan, I think of technology, order, manners, and ancient traditions. Who thinks about Christ and Japan? I’d never thought about the word “apostatize”. What does it really mean?
The Martyrs of Japan are a group of Christians who were executed by crucifixion on February 5, 1597, at Nagasaki. In our time, Nagasaki saw great destruction rain down from the sky. St. Francis Xavier, Fr. Cosme de Torres, and Fr. John Fernandez had come to bring Catholicism to Japan. All started amicably – permission was granted to build the first Japanese mission. For the Japanese this promised a great trade relationship with Europe. 300,000 Christians within 50 years. Infighting and corruption between Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. Factions in the Japanese government. Christianity was driven underground.
These were intruders and outsiders. The church represented a threat to Japanese soverignty, and the persecutions began. Foreigners and Japansese Christians alike were raised on crosses and pierced through with spears. These are the martyrs that we commemorate today. Christianity was outlawed, and yet it persisted. As the church dove underground, it survived without clergy or teaching until the arrival of Western missionaries in the 19th century.
How do we make any sense of this today? The modern-day church in Japan commemorates these who died for the Gospel of Christ, and you might even consider visiting the 26 Martyrs Museum in Nagasaki. We can’t even imagine facing death for our faith. And they had a choice – they could apostasize. They could step on the fumie and escape torture and death. It could be such an easy decision. Silence gave me a real vision of how it could feel to be tempted to renounce my faith. Do we take a stand for the sake of the gospel, or do we save ourselves for the sake of the gospel? When we minister to others, do they really understand us? How do we know whether they really embrace the gospel? Do we save ourselves in order to continue our ministry? Did Christ love them any less for trampling Him or spitting on Him? Do we love them any less? Were they wrong either way? I can’t conceive any answers for these questions, but I never had these questions to consider.
Something we can take from these stories is the knowledge that somehow the church survived in spite of everything. We know about great courage and conviction. We look at the present-day persection of Christians in Iraq, who officially canceled their Christmas celebrations in 2010, and make a connection to the Martrys of Japan. These stories continue to be renewed by all people, in all places.
Let us pray. It’s difficult to hold onto hope, but let us pray that God grant us courage in the face of challenges to our own faith. May God help us to understand that His gift of faith to us is the same faith He gave to these martyrs in another corner of the world, to sustain us, to give us hope, and to spur us on to shine the light of the gospel upon a darkened world.