Monday, February 4, 2013

February 5 - The Martyrs of Japan

“Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'” (Mark 8:34)

Christianity was introduced to Japan in the sixteenth century by the Jesuits, and then later by the Franciscans. By the end of the century there were as many as 300,000 Christians in Japan. Unfortunately, this promising beginning faced serious challenges, especially rivalries and conflicts between these different groups of missionaries, between the Spanish and Portuguese governments, and between factions within the Japanese government. The end result was the suppression of Christians. The first victims were six Franciscan friars and twenty of their converts, executed at Nagasaki on February 5, 1597. They were tied to crosses which were then raised to an upright position before they were stabbed to death with javelins. 

Three hundred and ninety-seven years later, I was ordained to the priesthood at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut by the Rt. Rev. Clarence Coleridge. In the Episcopal Church it is pretty rare (in fact very nearly impossible) to pick your "favorite" feast day on which to be ordained. Since I’d been ordained to the diaconate in June 1993 at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, I was eligible to be ordained a priest anytime after mid-December. The calendars of the bishop and the parish where I was serving converged on the evening of February 5, 1994 – The Feast of the Martyrs of Japan. Left to my own devices, it is probably not the date I would have chosen, but it's the one I got.

Nineteen years later I feel more bonded to those who were martyred in Nagasaki, in part because for these past fifteen years I've served a parish named for St. Francis and I feel a greater kinship through him with those Franciscan friars.

But in truth the bond goes deeper, for while I have always understood (with Buechner) that vocation is that place where our "deep joy meets the needs of the world," the truth is that ministry also involves sacrifice and kenotic love, even though most of us will (thankfully) not be tortured to death for being followers of Jesus.
The gospel reading appointed for this day takes us to the very heart of the gospel I’ve been ordained to preach for all these years and, God willing, will continue to preach for many more to come.The witness of those Franciscans over four hundred years ago continues to make it all very real to me: that those who would be followers of Jesus (in every time and place) are called to be people who stand ready to deny themselves and take up their crosses.

We must never forget that fidelity is hard. It's supposed to be. But we are called to be people of courage and hope; people who speak the truth even in a dangerous world; people who know that there are always costs to discipleship. But also to remember that ultimately, beyond the cross, there is an empty tomb - and a crown of glory.

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