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Merely owning it can get you killed

by davesandel on February 6th, 2021

Saturday, February 6, 2021                (today’s lectionary)

Memorial of Saint Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs

Merely owning it can get you killed

Brothers and sisters, let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise. Do good, share what you have and obey your leaders, that they may fulfill their task with joy and not with sorrow.

My chaplain friend Chris and I saw Silence together one winter night just after Christmas in 2016. Its shadowy soundtrack still wafts through my mind. The fog at dawn and dusk, just off the shores of Japan, rises, falls, and never completely lifts. Many people scurry toward and then away from each other, and in the long gone unmechanical days of the 1630’s there is often, awful, silence.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pastures, he walks with me beside still waters, he restores my soul and guides me in right paths for his name’s sake.

 The farmers whisper in the bamboo forest, while unseen reeds whistle in the wind. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee … Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our deaths.

The Christians are completely underground now after the death of Paul Miki and his companions 30 years earlier. They are afraid, but faithful in their fear. They refuse to relinquish their Jesus. Priests have come to minister to them from Portugal, and in their villages near Nagasaki they can at last have a Mass. They can taste the body and blood of Jesus, and know what it means to be filled. But this religion from the West, once reluctantly accepted, is now forbidden. Christians will be killed by the state, by the shogun, by the samurai, and not in simple ways.

Lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

Why did the Japanese choose to be so cruel, and where did they learn their terrible techniques of torture and slow death? The “Christian century” in Japan began with St. Francis Xavier’s arrival and welcome in 1547. But by 1638, when Christianity was officially banned, the response of civil and military leaders had become more and more defensive, repressive, and cruel. The same sadism and defensiveness showed itself in World War II and seemed directed not only at others but toward the Japanese themselves when things went wrong.

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil.

A few weeks after we saw the movie, I read the book by Shusaku Endo. Questions that the movie asked about either official cruelty or Christian faithfulness did not find answers in the book. The leaders were quiet and polite until they acted, and the priests vacillated in the meantime. As Roy Peachey wrote about the Portugese priest Rodrigues, “Tormented by the silence of God, he has a surprisingly secular understanding of the world.”

Not so the peasants of the villages. In his review of the movie Anthony Lane saw, “inserted into the grandeur, closeups so extreme that we can trace the arcs of dirt beneath individual fingernails. More often than not, we see a cross, of wood or plaited straw, clasped within these palms: a pitifully humble thing, but invested with such meaning that merely to own it could get you slain, or save your immortal soul.” Nothing mattered more.

Surely only goodness and mercy will follow me, all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

This morning the sky was lead gray, the air ice cold. Now in mid-afternoon the sun has come out in Austin and the sky is blue again. Which sky is the real sky? If the color of the sky affects my mood so much, how would I act if I was persecuted or tortured, or forced to watch my friends die unless I stamp my own foot down to trample the image of Christ?

May the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep by the Blood of the eternal covenant, furnish you with all that is good, that you may accomplish his will. May he carry out in you what is pleasing to him through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

I can always say I don’t know what I would do, but really, I don’t want to know. I’m afraid too, like the peasants, like the priests, like even the samurai – all afraid. And to us all Jesus says again and again, “Here I am. Do not be afraid. I shall always be with you.”

(Hebrews 13, Psalm 23, John 10, Mark 6)

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