(Illustration of the crucifixion of the 26 Martyrs of Japan, Nagasaki, Feb. 5, 1597, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Feb. 6, 2011)
Readings for the Feast Day of the Martyrs of Japan, Feb. 6:
Lamentations 3:46-48, 52-59
The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
--Psalm 16:5-11 (NRSV)
It's absolutely horrifying to think that the story of the 26 Martyrs of Japan represents the focal point of the annihilation of a Christian community that, at least numbered 300,000 (some scholars estimate it up to just under one million.) However, the more fascinating part of this story, to me, is "the rest of the story"--when the underground remnants of this community were re-discovered by Fr. Bernard-Thadeé Petitjean on March 17, 1865. (Actually, the covert Christians introduced themselves to Fr. Petitjean--but only after he and other missionaries had passed certain tests posed by the Japanese Christians, to confirm that these visitors, were, indeed, Christians themselves.)
For roughly two hundred and fifty years, the remnant of the original Japanese Christians, and approximately seven successive generations of their descendants had managed to keep the Christian faith alive, and relatively intact. Although a few documents and relics had been passed down, most of the faithful carried the tenets of their faith orally through snippets of remaining documents and the creation of the Tenchi hajimari no koto, a sacred book they created themselves that had an amalgam of Bible stories, elements of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, and Japanese folk tales. Many of them committed much of this to memory.
Another clever feature of their survival was that they had split among the community various sacramental duties that normally would have been under the scope of a single priest. They understood the Roman Catholic rubrics for emergency baptism and penitential rites in the absence of a priest, and divided these duties up among the community. Other duties overlapped among community members, such as the keeping of the liturgical calendar, the prayers and liturgies known as the orashiyo (from the Latin Oratio) and preserving various relics. Rather than worship as a large group, they created numerous roughly five-household cells, which interconnected to larger confraternaties or sodalities, that interconnected with each other.
But perhaps the most ingenious practice of these crypto-Christians was their creation of everyday objects indistinguishable to the eye from Buddhist tradition that were actually Christian objects of veneration. One example is a statue known as the Mariya Kannon. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be a female Buddha embracing a child--but to the faithful it was obviously the Blessed Virgin Mary and the young Jesus.
Although there were gaps in their understanding of some Sacraments (namely ordination and confirmation, since they required a bishop,) they still transmitted the knowledge of several Sacraments (particularly baptism) with amazing fidelity. When questioned by the missionaries upon their return in 1865, one woman remarked, "We celebrate the feast of our Lord Jesus on the 25th day of the month of frost. We have been told that on that day, about midnight, our Lord was born in a stable, that he grew up in poverty and suffering, and at the age of 33 he died for the salvation of our souls on the cross. Now we have the season of sorrow. Do you also have these celebrations?" (Fr. Petitjean remarked in his writings that, indeed, they were in the season of Lent at the time this story was told.)
It staggers the mind to see the complexity and detail these hidden Christians kept intact for seven generations. They re-wrote a rudimentary form of the Bible mostly from memory. They baptized their descendants. They created hidden objects of worship. They did what had to be done to keep the church alive--because their Christian faith meant that much to them. I doubt anyone would argue that even with their mistakes, gaps, and merging of Japanese folk tales into the tales of the Hebrew people, that these people were undoubtedly Christian.
As we remember not only these 26 brave martyrs, but the seven generations of crypto-Christians that carried on their legacy, let's participate in an imaginative spiritual exercise. If space aliens came tomorrow and began to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth, what would we believe were the most key aspects of our faith that we would be bound and determined to preserve? How would we disguise it? What pieces of our liturgy can you regurgitate from memory? What are the stories in the Bible that matter most to you? Perhaps those are exactly the features we should be displaying to younger generations that are struggling to decide if the church--and God--has any relevance to their lives.