This is a true story. In 1614 the Christian faith was spreading rapidly through one region of Japan and beginning to take root. For a number of political reasons, the government decided to crush and eliminate this threat to national unity. A ruthless,unrelenting war against missionaries and evangelists was unleashed. In October of that year, fifty-five persons of all ages were burned alive alongside the Kamo River in Kyoto. There were elderly people, young mothers, and children as young as 5 or 6 years old.
A crowd of 30,000 spectators gathered to observe the spectacle. Here’s how an Englishman standing among the crowd described the event: “When the faggots were kindled, the martyrs said sayonara to the onlookers who then began to intone, The Magnificat, followed by [Psalm 113 and 116]… Since it had rained heavily the night before, the faggots were wet and the wood burned slowly; but as long as the martyrdom lasted, the spectators continued to sing hymns and canticles. When death put an end to the victim’s suffering, the crowd intoned [a Latin hymn with these lyrics: ‘You are God, we praise you/ Your are Lord, we acclaim you/ You are the Eternal Father/ All Creation worships you.’]”
God not only commends saints who die for their faith; he encourages it. Hebrews 11 concludes with this epic celebration of martyrdom: “Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy…!” In Revelation 3:18, the Christ encourages us to ask for gold tried by fire; that is, fiery trial.
Here in the safety of our American fortress, Christians like you and me think of ourselves as tolerant and open-minded: we can talk openly about sex, adultery, pornography, or atheism- anything except the glory of the martyrs. We send teams to the mission field praying that Jesus will keep them safe: not that God will make them dangerous. We can scarcely summon the courage to suggest our young people consider the mission field. Heaven forbid we should think of them martyred for Christ while spreading the gospel! Mention personal sacrifice and we imagine two hours in church when the espresso machine is broken!
Of all the Christmas texts available for poetic reflection this Christmas, few of us will deal with aging Simeon’s prophecy to Mary during the dedication of Jesus at the Temple. The old man describes the ministry of the Messiah, and adds parenthetically for the young mother, “And a sword will pierce through your own soul, too.” That’s clearly a scribal gloss: Everybody knows the Gospel makes us rich and happy!
Read Revelation this Christmas. Jesus looks forward to celebrating in Heaven with all the martyrs who have given their lives in service on the Earth. He offers extraordinary rewards to those who dare to lose it all without regret.
In American churches, our brand of worship is high-tech, but low-ambition. We aspire to joyful experiences with Christ. We pray for God to heal everybody. We feel persecuted when a clerk at Macy’s says, “Happy Holiday!” Sadly, we cannot imagine why anyone would stand there watching godly people burn, and sing, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. O Lord, I am your servant. Praise the Lord!”
The narrative from Japan is taken from the introduction to a 1966 classic, Silence by Shusaku Endo. It is an elegant, historical novel based on actual events. I’m reading it for Christmas this year, and feeling unworthy.
Lift up the Cross!