Today we celebrate the martyrs of Japan. Christianity was first introduced in Japan in the 1500’s, first by the Jesuits and then by the Franciscans. By the end of the 1500’s, there were about 300,000 baptized believers in Japan. But the successes were compromised by both rivalries among religious orders and the interplay of colonial politics. Eventually, all Christians suffered cruel persecution and suppression. The first victims, whom we honor today, were six Franciscan friars and 20 converts who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597. By 1630, what was left of Christianity was driven underground; yet 250 years later, many men and women, without priests, persevered with their faith.
I have been thinking a lot about those martyrs. First, I am still a little shocked by the idea of someone being actually crucified almost 1,600 years after Jesus’ death. I didn’t even think people would do that anymore. Second, I am astounded by the idea of someone using that form of murder on Christians – crucifixion seems like the ultimate form of insult and torture one could commit that would certainly intimidate and dissuade followers. What is so sobering to me about the martyrs’ deaths is that the murderers almost seem to be using the faith against the followers, as if to say, “You want to follow Jesus Christ? Then do what Jesus says in Mark’s gospel and take up your cross. We may think of “taking up one’s cross” as a description of the suffering for following Jesus – but we often forget that the cross ultimately points to death. That is an extreme form of witness that few of us would be comfortable assuming.
I think where the gospel, the epistle and even the martyrs are trying to get us to is an emptying of the self and an assuming of total dedication to Christ. Now we may not be literally crucified in our age, but if we fully embrace the idea of taking up a cross, we fully submit our lives to God. Certainly there will be dramatic moments – I always remember those kids in Columbine who at gun point were asked to deny their faith. But more likely, the moments will be small, but tremendous. Seeing God in the homeless man; saying something uncomfortable among a group of friends because your faith compels you to challenge the direction of the conversation, re-examining your life patterns to assess the ways you have already put your cross down. Though taking up our crosses now may seem ambiguous, when we take on that work, we will find death – death to our old way of being and life in a new way of being. Amen.
This homily, along with the several posted immediately after date from December 2013 – February 2014. When we celebrate Eucharist each Thursday morning at St. Margaret’s, I preach a short homily to celebrate the feast day of whatever saint falls nearest to that day (as appointed by Lesser Feasts and Fasts and Holy Men, Holy Women). A parishioner helps me to transcribe the homilies so that others can enjoy them too. We seem to have finally caught up now – enjoy!