The Martyrs of Japan

In 1597, 26 Christians, including three children, were crucified in Nagasaki, Japan. They were bound upon crosses, hoisted up, and stabbed to death with spears. There is no way to dress this up. There is no way to make it peaceful or pretty. These were gruesome, terrible deaths. The martyrs almost certainly felt a great deal of fear and pain. The killings were a deliberate attempt to stoke fear among any Christian converts, missionaries, and sympathizers. This has never been an ordinary form of execution in Japan; the killings were a deliberate mockery of Christ’s Crucifixion.

Maybe that’s our way in. Many Christians in our country live in an escapist fantasy, where they are the oppressed minority, and executions are only a generation or two away. This thinking seems to cut across many different denominations, and makes an utter mockery of the martyrs of the Church. But for the rest of us, real martyrdom is deeply difficult to wrap our heads around. We have, perhaps, felt a bit at-odds or out-of-place running in certain social circles. Maybe this has led to arguments or hurt feelings. But, for the vast majority of us, this is as bad as it will ever get. Genuinely being killed for being Christian is…unthinkable. Not here. Over there, sure. But not here.

And yet, the Crucified One adorns our worship spaces. He adorns our homes. He adorns our necklaces, bracelets, and tattoos. “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”That is who Paul means by “Christ crucified.”

Paul’s language here does no skirting around the terrible circumstances of Christ’s death. Jesus, God incarnate, is thrust into a position of fundamental weakness and submission, to the point of the shameful death of a convict, stripped naked, hoisted up as a spectacle and an object of mockery. Jesus, God incarnate, is thrust into a position of torturous and agonizingly painful death, baking in the noonday sun, the weight of his own body, the very flesh he became in an act of love for the world that now condemns him to die, turned against him to exacerbate his suffering. He was dehydrated, bleeding, exposed, and isolated. Paul says outright that this is weakness, that this is foolishness. And it is.

Yet we proclaim Christ crucified.

Because the foolishness iswisdom. The weakness ispower. Not false foolishness or weakness, a veil hiding the “real” wisdom and power. No. This cannot be true, because to undo the weakness and foolishness of the cross, to undo the suffering, the isolation, the nakedness, the shame, is to undo the Gospel, to undo the Incarnation, to make the Crucifixion a mirage, a trick of the eye. No. We proclaim Christ crucified.

But why? Why the suffering, the isolation, the nakedness, the shame? Because in pouring out the blood and water from his side, Christ pours out for us the love he promised us. In pouring out his life, in his the self-emptying of his own free will, Christ fulfills his own prophetic words, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”2By this love, by this mercy, by this suffering, isolation, nakedness, and shame, we see love in full bloom. We see love raised up. We see love, by its own choice to submit to hatred, conquer hatred. “I have conquered the world!”3Jesus says, as he is about to be arrested. As we behold the foolishness and the weakness of the cross, we may begin to see that he was, surprisingly, right.

On the crucifixion, St. Ephrem the Syrian has this to say:

“Blessed is he for whom Paradise yearns. Yes, Paradise yearns for the man whose goodness makes him beautiful; it engulfs him at its gateway, it embraces him in its bosom, it caresses him in its very womb; for it splits open and receives him into its inmost parts. …Blessed is he who was pierced and so removed the blade from the entry to Paradise.”4

Ephrem relies heavily on John’s Gospel account here, because it is John alone who recounts the spear piercing Christ’s side.Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also John’s Gospel that has Jesus proclaiming that there is not greater love than dying for one’s friends, and that Christ has conquered the world. Because in John’s Gospel, the crucifixion is a point of light and glory. Ephrem’s words suggest that the piercing of Christ’s side has opened the gates of Paradise. When he describes Paradise as opening up to and yearning for the company of humanity, we see a remarkable parallel with Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”6In the Gospel’s prologue, this is also made clear: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart [or, literally, ‘bosom’], who has made him known.”7

Christ goes up to the cross because he loves us. Christ submits to death, in its suffering, isolation, nakedness, and shame, because he loves us. Christ submits to the blade unjustly turned against him so that he might open to us Paradise, his bosom, his heart. Christ yearns for us to abide with him here, quite literally opening himself to our entry. He wishes to engulf us, embrace us, caress us, to split open and welcome us into his inmost parts, because he loves us. And love, even in its greatest death, its greatest defeat, its greatest foolishness and weakness, has the victory.

In 1597, 26 Christians, including three children, were crucified in Nagasaki, Japan. This has never been an ordinary form of execution in Japan; the killings were a deliberate mockery of Christ’s Crucifixion. Let cruel men mock. Let them see weakness and foolishness and treat them with scorn. Christ will be present without end to the mocked and the weak; he will yearn ceaselessly with love for the presence of the scorned. For it is in this suffering, isolation, nakedness, and shame that he opens to us and receives us into the eternal paradise of his heart.

  1. 1 Corinthian 1:23-24
  2. John 15:13
  3. John 16:33
  4. Ephrem’s Hymns on ParadiseII.1, tr. Sebastian Brock
  5. John 19:34
  6. John 17:21
  7. John 1:18

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