Martyrs of Japan – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Geoffrey_SSJEOn 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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  1. yoshi nagaishi on February 5, 2022 at 07:45

    I happened to find this sermon this morning. I grew up with a story that my family was related to one of the 26 Martyrs. A chance finding this sermon on this day reminded me again of divine connections of all beyond time and space. Thank you.

  2. Doris Webster on January 30, 2019 at 09:59

    Thank you, Br. Geoffrey Tristan, for your important message to deepen my life in prayer to grow in Christ’s love.

  3. Sylvia Tospann on January 29, 2019 at 14:45

    People of all ages have believed in a creator God; I believe they always will. And I hope that I have instilled my faith in God in my children. For me it is not important what their church affiliation is, or even religion, be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim….., but it is important that they trust that there is a God who cares for them, they can pray to, who is there with them all the time. A very smart person once said to me that for bringing up children it is only important to be a good example and love…. I believe that there is only one God, that God is Love and Jesus being my brother and teacher. I hope that my children can always rely on their faith instilled by their mother as I was taught about faith by my grandmother.

  4. Jeanne DeFazio on January 29, 2019 at 08:28

    Love these morning reflections and comments. They are life changing and allow me to join in so much greater understanding of life. This devotional opens people’s hearts to Jesus and to one another. A great gift.

    Thanks so much!

  5. Alan Rollins on July 15, 2017 at 10:23

    Given the present political and, frankly, rancorous time we are living through, persons of all levels of faith need to make sure to pass forward their candle of faith, and keep the love of Jesus Christ, the power of God, flowing into the generations to come. Thank you Brother Geoffrey, and God Bless.

  6. rhode on July 14, 2017 at 12:07

    This message is dear to my heart. My dad, a refugee himself, opened his door to homeless. He refused to leave his home, which at that time, was at the recorded center of terroristic activity in NL and nearby Belgium. He gave humorously, lovingly and unjudgementally. He battled with the NL government for the rights of the undocumented. He frustrated everyone of us, including church folk, who feared over his safety, his security, his money, his time…by showing us, by softly asking us to pray and not worry, that everything he had belonged to God. Everything. He died at 87, 3 yrs ago. I am grateful my non-Christian family were able to see what love for Christ can do. …we all miss him. My parents living faith gave me the desire to love Jesus. For this alone, I am so very grateful.

    • syd reginato on February 5, 2018 at 08:12

      Thank you so much for sharing. This inspires me to continue to try to model love for Christ , to the Glory of His name, amongst non-Christian family members.

  7. Jane Goldring on May 6, 2017 at 12:54

    Thanks Geoffrey for that message. I think you have to be yourself and not push religion on people. We were raised to go to Sunday School and Church. Also when I first started working I took out envelopes from Church and gave each week. I think of my Nieces and Nephews, when one nephew said to me Aunt Jane we will help you move Uncle John. What are families but to help one another. I phoned and cancelled the mover and the boys helped me move John twice. I think if families help one another that is a start. jane

  8. Ruth West on February 22, 2017 at 17:58

    Br. Geoffrey, you end with a soul-searching question. I am in the autumn of my life. I wonder what I have done and what I am in passing my faith to my children. I know full well, not enough. I hope it is not too late to, with God’s help, repair gaps and broken places and bolster the positive with more prayer and more of His word. Thanks for this good sermon.

  9. Christopher on February 22, 2017 at 09:17

    Given the times we live in, how do we practice our faith by example for our defendants?

  10. Mary Lee Wile on February 22, 2017 at 08:06

    A note of thanks — and of hope. Sometimes we don’t even realize we actually have passed on the light, but it’s there in the hearts and memories of those we’ve nurtured. My grown son has — to my surprise — remained a “closet Christian:”
    Mary Lee Wile

  11. CR on February 22, 2017 at 07:54

    A sermon that poses such fundamental questions, in such a compelling way. To be revisited and pondered many times over.

    PS On the martyrs of Japan, see Shusaku Endo’s beautiful novel, Silence (1966) and the equally beautiful film adaptation by Martin Scorsese (2016).

  12. Sally S. Hicks on February 8, 2013 at 11:50

    Br. Geoffry,
    Thank you so much for this sermon. I’ve found it very helpful this morning. I’ve been recently widowed and my life and ministry is, of course, in the throes of transition – my own little Dark Age – as I seek to understand a new calling — and also as I realize that how I live this time will be a witness to my family and my three teen-age grandsons.
    Like Garrison Keillor once said about the children “watching their parents’ faith tested before their very eyes.”
    Thanks for all this sermon has given me to ponder. Sally Hicks

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