Feast of the Martyrs of Japan by Br. James Koester
We remember today (February 5), in this commemoration of the Martyrs of Japan, what for me at least, is one of the more fascinating chapters in the history of Christian missionary activity. It is not that I am so interested in the why and how’s of the actual martyrdom, as I am interested in what happened afterward.
My hunch is that few of us here know much about Japan. What we do know is that historically, Japan has been a closed nation. It has been difficult for, and remains difficult, for outsiders to become accepted in Japan. And that was part of, and continues to be, part of the challenge for the Christian Church in Japan. It is seen to be very much an outsider. Yet, in the Sixteenth Century, the Church, through the missionary activity of one of the great Jesuit saints, Francis Xavier as well as some Franciscans, a tiny foothold was made in Japan for the Church. Unfortunately that came to an end on this day in 1597 when six Franciscan friars and 20 of their converts were crucified outside Nagasaki. By 1630 what was left of the church in Japan had been driven underground. And that is what fascinates me.
As a people primarily of European heritage we have a long Christian memory. We live in a culture that has been shaped and formed by the Christian faith and the church. Our social, political and economic institutions have all been shaped by the church and the faith which it professes. The same is not true in Japan. Our art, literature and architecture are profoundly Christian, or are a reaction against that faith. The same is not true in Japan. In many ways the faith which you and I share is supported and undergirded by, at least the remnants, of a Christian culture. The same is not true in Japan.
The fascinating thing about the Japanese church is that 250 years after the death of those martyrs in Nagasaki, when Japan was again opened up to trade and commerce with the West, there were discovered families who carried on vestiges of the Christian faith. Without the support of an institution called a “church,” without contact with Christians outside of Japan; without the structure of authority or hierarchy; without the support of buildings or literature or art there were Japanese families who had continued to baptize their children and to pass on the rudiments of the faith. That’s what fascinates me about the Japanese Church.
And it all raises for me a question. Without the support of all this: institutions and buildings and vestment and liturgies, and even the culture of a “Christian” nation do you and I have a living faith that is so convincing that we could pass it on to our children and grandchildren for two and a half centuries? Or would our faith and theirs simply fade away and become an interesting footnote in the pages of history?
Today we give thanks for the Martyrs of Japan, giving thanks not so much for their deaths, but for their faith and for the faith which they passed on to future generations. May we all have such a faith.