Early in the story we come to a scene of two men, Christian leaders of a peasant village. They are tied to boards and dragged to the edge of the sea positioned not to drown immediately, but so the water comes right up around their faces, covering their tense bodies. The older man Ichizo passes quickly from exhaustion. The younger, Mokichi, lingers for a few days singing,
We’re on our way, we’re on our way, We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise. . .
These Japanese Christians, like many in the persecuted church around the world today die for their faith without ever having practiced it freely. Their church life was conducted in hushed whispers in dark rooms, they learned through quiet instructions passed down, not from learned scholars, but from other peasants. They knew nearly nothing of the Bible, had few Christian traditions and many of their practices blended with local folklore so that in many ways it did not resemble Christianity at all.
And yet when the line was drawn they chose to stand on the side of Christ even if it meant their life.
It makes me wonder. What does it even mean to be a Christian?
Is Christianity something that begins when we are of an age when we can make a rational decision and recite a certain prayer, making the personal choice to submit ourselves to Christ. If that’s so does it mean that our children prior to this point aren’t Christians?
Or is it baptism, even in infancy, which ushers in the presence of the holy spirit? Does this make the baptized a Christian even if they never practice their faith?
Or does our Christianity hinge on believing the right thing about Jesus? What about those who are never taught, or who are taught wrong because they have no teachers?
Most men and women who will be martyred this year are not especially devout. They are ordinary people, often simply born into a Christian family. They are people like us or our neighbors with no saint-like constitution or advanced understanding. And yet when the trial comes and only holiness can lead them through it with faith intact these modern day martyrs will rise up onto their own crosses next to Christ. They will boldly (though probably quite fearfully) take a stand while the rest of us wonder if any amount of study or prayer will make us ready for that sort of trial?
We live in a culture where holiness is optional even among Christians. Depending on your tradition, maturity in the faith is synonymous with either following rules or with the accumulation of Biblical knowledge. Mokichi and others like him don’t have the much of either, yet as they face impending death singing hymns to God there is little doubt in my mind. They are holy. They seek Christ and He is with them.
Martyr stories make me wonder if our most painful moments are also our most sacred. And if praying to be released from suffering is also seeking to escape from the revelation of the deepest Truth. As our bodies tear open and birth a child, or as we weep for the baby we never had, or stare down at a grave or up at the ceiling from our hospital bed, perhaps it is then that we encounter the Divine Spirit, maybe we even find Him within ourselves. And maybe it is this Holy Spirit that sustains us and draws us to the foot of the cross and to The One who suffers for us. And maybe as we find Him we become holy and maybe that is what we have been looking for all this time.
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This post is part of our Reading Group series. Right now are reading Silence by Shusaku Endo. We would love for you to join us.