Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation, but God Incarnate was with us at the Annunciation: when, in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb. For nine months, God was with us, but He was hidden from our view. And every Advent we contemplate the hidden Christ in our midst.
Since we are all called to be Christ in the world, and since there was a time when Our Lord was with us in the world, but hidden, I wondered if there were a lesson for us there—that there is a time for us to be Christ in the world, but hidden. Jesus’ whole life was a teaching. Are there lessons to be drawn from His life to help us persevere in love while hidden? After all, being hidden requires humility as well as the fortitude to resist the temptation to seek praise for good works, or relief from suffering.
And sufferings we know we will face. “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first (John 15:18), Jesus told His disciples. “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12). Since what God commands He makes possible through His grace, we can know He will give us what we need to endure these trials.
What are these trials today? A discussion of the Holy Spirit’s gift of fortitude in my son’s Confirmation prep class led to a lively discussion of how Christians today show fortitude: stand up to “hate speech,” one 15 year old said. Another suggested fighting to ensure all races were represented equally in movie award ceremonies. I wondered, do young people—really, do any of us, living as we do in this incredibly comfortable, “Frist world problems” type of society—have any idea what it means to show fortitude, to endure the suffering Christ promised we would endure when we follow Him? When the worst we can conceive of is hearing “hate speech”?
The need to show my children something greater led me to discover the 26 Martyrs of Japan and the hidden Christians. We are fortunate enough to be making a trip to Nagasaki, Japan early next year, and I had been looking for ways to make the most out of that journey faith and education-wise. It turned out to be an education for all of us.
You see I too am part of that too-comfortable world that needs “trigger-warnings” and has a hard time understanding what it really means to suffer for one’s faith. When a friend told me Nagasaki was an important city in the Catholic history of Japan, my response was surprise: “Japan has a Catholic history?”
Then I recalled how Jesuit missionaries had traveled to Asia: St. Francis Xavier and his companions landed in Kagoshima, Japan in 1549. Franciscans arrived a few years later. We read together about how a few decades later Japan had a Christian population close to a quarter of a million people, with the port city of Nagasaki called a “Little Rome.” But military ruler Hideyoshi Toyotomi began to see Catholicism as a sign of imperialism. Christians began to face persecution. In a show of brutal force meant to terrorize all, Toyotomi ordered the crucifixion of 26 Christians—6 foreign missionaries and 20 Japanese, including children—on February 5, 1597.
With these cruel executions began a period where Japan was completely cut off form the rest of the world. A strict ban on Christianity was issued in 1614. Tens of thousands of Christians were slaughtered. The remaining Christians, who saw their churches demolished and their priests exiled or killed, were cut off from the Church and from all of the Sacraments except Baptism. Subsequent generations of Christians remained in hiding in order to survive. They lived in fear. To root out believers, the Japanese government held an annual ceremony where all were required to trample upon of icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary, known as fumie. Refusing meant being drenched in boiling water, being hung upside-down and bled to death, or other torturous deaths. Many refused and died for their faith. But others succumbed to the threat, denied Christ, and dealt with terrible guilt. With no priests, these Christians had no way to confess their sins and receive absolution.
While we do not thank God for any sin, we know that one of the greatest mysteries of our all-loving Father is that He can make good come from evil.
Pope Pius IX canonized the 26 Martyrs in 1862. The next year, French priest Fr. Bernard Petitjean and another priest traveled to Japan, which had recently permitted foreigners to practice Christianity. In Nagasaki, they built a church in honor of the 26 Martyrs. One March morning, Fr. Petitjean looked curiously at a group of a dozen Japanese people gathered before the church. Japanese were still strictly forbidden from practicing Christianity or even associating with Christians. Then one of them approached Fr. Petitjean and said, “We have the same feeling in our hearts as you do. Where is the statue of the Virgin Mary?”
The astonished priest realized that the people before him were the descendants of those very Christians who had hidden themselves from the world almost 200 years before. The scene of their joyous meeting is memorialized in a bronze relief at Oura Church in Nagasaki. There you can also see the statue of the Virgin that was the heart of their reunion.
Once again, Christ was revealed through Mary! Christianity had not been wiped from Japan. Invisible, suffering, and broken, it had remained hidden. The ban on Christianity was lifted for all in 1873, and Japan’s new Constitution protected religious liberty in 1889. Churches began to dot the landscape, some built by the hidden Christians themselves: one said to be on the very spot where the fumie trampling had taken place. God makes good come from evil. Pope Pius IX called the resurfacing of tens of thousands of hidden Christians following the revelation at Oura Church “the miracle of the Orient.”
The 26 Martyrs and all who died for the faith testify not just to who Christ is, but also how to be the hidden Christ to the world. It means crucifying the self: resisting the temptation to sin in order to find relief from trials. Jesus told us not to worry about those who could kill our bodies, but to worry about the evil one who could eternally separate us from God in hell (cf. Mt. 10:28). Indeed, His only warning about “hate speech” occurred in the context of telling us not only to expect to be on the receiving end of it, but to realize it was a blessing (cf. Matthew 5:11-12).
Through His Passion, Christ was, in a way, hidden. They taunted Him as He hung on the Cross: “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself,” and “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Cf Lk 23:27, Mk 15:32. He could have come down and not ceased to be God, but Christ’s true power lay elsewhere, hidden by meekness and gentleness. Was Jesus tempted to come down off the Cross? If so, He kept it hidden. How great the temptation must have reverberated in the minds of 26 Martyrs and the tens of thousands more who were slaughtered: “If you want to live, save yourself: deny Christ, and stop this torture.” The 26 Martyrs and many others refused.
Christ and the martyrs are our example to follow. But there is also hope in the message of the hidden Christians. During the Roman persecution, the Church Councils of North Africa had permitted those who had committed apostasy under threat of torture to be reconciled to the Church after a period of penance. We entrust the lapsed Japanese Christians to Christ’s mercy, and take comfort in how God worked miracles through them: using them to reignite the fire of Christianity in Japan centuries later.
In these last days of Advent, let us follow the example of Christ and the 26 Martyrs, put aside our desires for praise, or our temptation to sin when it seems sin will make life easier. Let us pray for and protect the unborn, recalling that for a time Jesus’ life—like the life of all the unborn—was hidden. And let us take comfort in our awesome God for whom all things are possible, recalling the “miracle of the Orient” that He worked through the hidden Christians to help make the light of His Son known to the world.