Christianity was introduced to the people of Japan in the 16th century, first by the Jesuits under the leadership of Francis Xavier, and then by the Franciscans. This was a complex time in Japanese history with rivalries between various religious groups; between Spain and Portugal in their intent to colonize Japan; and between the Japanese emperor and the feudal overlords, the shoguns. Christians became a target for persecution and martyrdom. By the mid-17th century, what was left of the church was driven underground for many, many years.
In our community’s Rule of Life we speak of the freedom and trust that has enabled martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. Our Rule states, “The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward… day by day.” (1) What actually is the witness of the martyrs that we should keep in mind day-by-day if it’s not about the prospect (today) of literally being physically martyred? What should we here remember about martyrs? Two things come to mind:
At times when you feel fearful or oppressed, you may also feel terribly isolated and vulnerable. You may find an enormous comfort to pray for the companionship and intercession of a martyr, a person who withstood the test of life valiantly. This “martyr” may be someone remembered in the calendar of the church. Or this “martyr” may be some soul remembered in the tenderness of your own heart: a loved one, a teacher, a friend, a pastor – someone who understood and withstood suffering and to whom you feel connected. Is there someone you consider a “martyr” and to whom you are particularly drawn? How could you nurture that relationship, your communion with this “saint” who has already found a place in your heart?
Secondly, the word that always accompanies martyrs is “courage.” The English word “courage” comes from Old French, corage, which is about the heart. The gift of courage gives your heart strength to withstand suffering. The gift of courage also enlightens your heart with wisdom to distinguish what is ultimate from what is penultimate in life. (2) Ultimate in this life is that we belong to the God of love. We are a gift from God, and a gift for God, and we belong to God in this life and in the life to come, forever. That is ultimate. Everything else in life is penultimate at best. Don’t stake all your life’s energies on what will not last. The gift of courage gives your heart strength to withstand suffering and the wisdom to discern what really matters. We will pray for this very thing as we conclude our liturgy today, for “strength and courage to love [Christ] with gladness and singleness of heart.” (3)
1. Quoted from the SSJE Rule of Life, Chapter 39: “…The grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him. It is the same grace that gives strength to martyrs to submit gladly to death as witnesses of the resurrection. From the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.”
2. In The Letter to the Ephesians (1:17-19) we read: “…I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
3. Quoted from The Book of Common Prayer, a prayer used at the conclusion of the Holy Eucharist, p. 365:
Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
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