On this day, February 5, 1597, 26 Christians were crucified in the Japanese city of Nagasaki. For some 40 years before this terrible event, the formerly closed world of Japan had opened up to the West, and through the missionary activity of one of the great Jesuit saints, Francis Xavier, as well as some Franciscans, a tiny foothold was made in Japan for the Church.
But because of rivalries among the religious orders, and insensitive missionary work among the Japanese people, the powerful ruling Shogun ordered the arrest of six Franciscans and 20 Japanese Christians and had them publically crucified. And soon after that the country was completely closed to all foreigners for 250 years.
What is absolutely amazing, and what I find most interesting about today’s commemoration, is 250 years after the death of those martyrs in Nagasaki, when Japan was again opened up to trade and commerce with the West at the end of the 19th century, there were discovered families who were still Christian. Over the centuries, from generation to generation, men and women had passed on the faith, with no churches, no priests – no institution called “church,” without the support of buildings, or literature or art – these Japanese families had quietly and secretly continued to baptize their children and pass on the rudiments of their faith. They had kept the candle of faith burning. I find that amazing and inspiring.
Something very similar was to happen in the 20th century. From 1922 until 1991, seventy years, the Soviet Union repressed, outlawed and persecuted Christians. Churches were closed, thousands of priests and monks were killed, or sent to labor camps. I had the privilege of visiting Moscow in 1990, at the time of perestroika. Communism was breaking down, and Christians began to emerge, often elderly babushkas, from those hidden and secret places where year by year they had kept alight the candle of faith. The following year, 1991, the candle burst into flames, and thousands of churches were reopened, and new ones built – and the seminaries were full.
What happened in 18th and 19th century Japan, and in 20th century Soviet Union, is what happened in Europe during the Dark Ages. As the barbarians invaded the Eastern Mediterranean, monastic communities fled to the west, to seek places where they could live their monastic life and keep alive the flame of faith, building their communities on the most inaccessible fringes of Ireland and Scotland. Here the monks lived and worshipped, tending the candle of faith for future generations.
Faithful men and women of Japan, of the Soviet Union and the Celtic fringes of the British Isles. All are inspiring stories. But they raise a big question for me. Without the support of all this: the building, vestments, liturgies, music and Scripture – and even the culture of a “Christian” nation, do you and I have a living faith that is convincing enough, tenacious enough, that we could pass it on to our children and grandchildren? If a new Dark Age were to descend upon us, if we were forbidden to acknowledge or practice our faith on pain of death, perhaps for several hundred years, would our faith simply fade away, the candle flicker for awhile and then be snuffed out – forever?
If you had to distill your faith to its essence – an essence which you would strive to pass on to the next generation, what would that essence be? Would it be enough to survive?
I suspect that those faithful Christians in Japan and the Soviet Union, and certainly those Celtic monks, were not preserving mere words, not preserving and passing on credal statements, but rather were living and transmitting a way of life: a practice. And that way of life, that practice, was not based on theological propositions but on a relationship. In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ: and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”(Gal. 2:20) Extraordinary words! It was this dynamic and life-giving relationship with Jesus which was at the heart, the very essence of Paul’s faith. In a remarkable and paradoxical way, it was not so much Paul who was protecting and guarding a deposit of faith in Jesus Christ, but rather Jesus Christ who was protecting and guarding Paul!
So if we are to be faithful to the truth we have received, if we long to transmit this faith to future generations, our best way is to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ. Deepen our practice of prayer.
Next week, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season which invites us to go deeper. Every Tuesday in Lent, beginning on February 19th, at our 5:30 Eucharist, the sermon will be exploring practical and concrete ways to deepen our life of prayer. This five week preaching series will be followed by a meal in the undercroft, and an opportunity to ask questions of the preacher. I hope that in these sermons you will find some very practical ways of deepening your life of prayer, and deepening your relationship with God in Christ.
But perhaps tonight, as we remember with thanksgiving those 26 Japanese martyrs who died for their faith, it’s an opportunity to ask some searching questions about our own faith.
How strong is your faith? How would it survive if it was tested by suffering or repression? What would you want to pass on to future generations? What practical things might you do now to nurture your relationship with Jesus Christ?
Each of us has been entrusted with the light of the Gospel. It is a light which was handed on to us by others. What do you need to do in your own life of discipleship to ensure that that precious candle burns brightly, and that you will be able to pass it on to the next generation? They’re depending on you.
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