Thirty years ago, on February 5, 1994, I was ordained a priest at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT.
date did not actually mark the beginning of my ordained life, however, as my
brother and some of my closest friends never fail to remind me! It was actually
the third ordination liturgy that they endured on my behalf.
In June of 1993, I had been ordained a deacon at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford.
And five years before that I’d been ordained in the United Methodist Church in
June 1988 at Elm Park Church in Scranton, PA. There is a small group of
folks who made it to all three! (Thank you all!)
What I have come to see
as the most important thing to say about those martyrs
who died for their fidelity to Christ in Japan in the sixteenth
century is that by all human accounts they failed. An old
write up in Holy Women, Holy Men puts it this way:
…these initial successes were compromised by
rivalries among the religious orders, and the interplay of colonial politics,
both within Japan and between Japan and the Spanish and Portuguese, aroused
suspicion about western intentions of conquest.
politics arousing suspicions? Say it ain’t so! We are very often our own worst enemies, are we not? We very
often are not all on the same page within Christ’s holy, catholic, and
apostolic Church. We really could indeed move mountains if we could ever get
two or three on earth to agree about anything, but since we carry this treasure
in earthen vessels we don’t always or even mostly get it right. As Dietrich
Bonhoeffer once said, we have to learn to deal with the Church we get in all
its imperfections, rather than the wish-dream of the Church we idealistically
imagine God should have formed. We are a mess. Still, God loves us.
By all human accounts, the martyrs of Japan failed. They fought turf battles and then they suffered and then they were killed. If nothing else it is a reminder that death is not the end, but the way that leads to new life. The Way of the Cross really is the way that leads to new and abundant life. So even at the grave we make our song. The seeds of faith were planted even by their deaths, just as the death of their Lord had done some sixteen hundred years before them.
So, too with us. As one of my my favorite prayers puts it, "our failures and disappointments" can be occasions for us to put our whole trust in God. It is interesting to have such a day on which to reflect on one’s ministry and the wider ministry of the Church, especially since we live at a time when it is such a great a temptation to measure our dignity and worth by our successes.
Today’s gospel reading puts it succinctly and also reminds us that while it is the martyrs of Japan that we remember today, their witness and the witness of all the saints who from their labors rest point us to the one they were willing to take up their crosses and follow: Jesus of Nazareth, the one we claim as the Way and the Truth and the Life. They remind us, as he did, that we only find the life that is worth living when we are willing to lose the secure (but false) lives we are tempted to build for ourselves and hold onto. Almost sixty-one years into my baptismal vows and more than half of those as an ordained person, and now thirty as an Episcopal priest, I know I don’t have that much faith yet. But I pray with that one who said, “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”