Here is my sermon preached this morning at the Monastery in Cambridge. I knew before I went on our end of January “Away Week” that I was scheduled to preach on this Feast today, so I began thinking about how I should present it. Having served for some years in the former SSJE Japanese Province (1962-1975) I could draw on my experience of having lived in that country as a priest and monk. My first thoughts were about my memories of seeing the notice board prohibiting Christianity that hung for many years on the wall of one of our hallways here at the Monastery, and then seeing one of the same boards at St. Michael’s Monastery, Oyama, Japan, and hearing some of the story of the Martyrs from Japanese members of SSJE. There was also my own memory of actually visiting the site of the crucifixion of the 26 Martyrs in Nagasaki on one of my visits there. I also used “Google” to refresh my memory concerning some of the details of that event, plus having learned of some of the other martyrdoms while I lived in Japan. The last paragraph was inspired by the newspaper and TV reports of the recent deaths of the hostages in the Eastern Mediterranean. We certainly need to pray for a solution to that situation.
The Martyrs of Japan (1597- ca.1630)
Today is the Feast of the first martyrs in Japan, followed by others over a period of years.
Late in the 16th Century reports reached the Daimyo, Hideyoshi, and other leaders in Japan, that the Philippine Islands and other parts of Southeast Asia were being colonized by Spain and Portugal and other European countries through the influence of Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries.
To avoid this happening in Japan, the rulers declared that the Religion known as Christianity was forbidden in Japan. Wooden signboards with appropriate warning phrases were set up in public places throughout Japan. Those who were suspected of being Christians were arrested, and many of them were killed.
In 1958 when I came here to enter the SSJE, I found one of those signboards with Japanese writing, hanging in the 2nd floor hallway, where it hung until a few years ago. When I went to Japan in 1962 I found a similar notice board at St. Michael’s Monastery, near the front entrance. Those boards, relics of an earlier time, remind us who have seen them of the statement in our Rule of Life that the witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life, day by day. (R. L. p. 79)
There are different levels of witness. Today we commemorate those who valiantly bore witness by their courage and faith unto death. Others went underground to become Kakureta Kirisutan (hidden Christians).
The first martyrdom occurred on February 5, 1597 at Nagasaki, a port city in the Southern island of Shikoku. Six European Franciscans and Jesuits and three Japanese Religious, 17 laypersons also, bravely submitted to crucifixion on a hillside overlooking the harbor. (I’ve seen the place.) Over the next 50 years, or more, many others were put to death in different parts of Japan.
The age of martyrs is not past. Even now we know that in other parts of the world, not Japan, martyrdom unto death is still occurring. Give thanks for those who stood steadfast in ages past!
Pray for those who may yet have to bear witness by the shedding of blood! Pray for your own fortitude as witnesses to the truth in Christ!
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