Thursday, February 06, 2014

Feburary 6, Saint Paul Miki and Companion Martyrs

Proper of the Saints: Galatians 2:19–20; Psalm 126:1–6; Matthew 28:16–20

I chose to use readings from the proper of saints today because they seemed more fitting (proper?) than the readings from ordinary time.

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Our two readings and psalm today highlight the evangelical spirit: that spirit which we encounter when we have opened ourselves completely to God’s will and made ourselves available to his call. We also celebrate the feast day of the martyr St. Paul Miki and twenty-five Japanese Catholics who were executed along with him during the reign of the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 16th century Japan. This feast and the readings all share a common theme: the cost of discipleship.

It costs something to believe in and follow the teachings of Christ and His Church.

In the first reading, Paul says that our crucifixion with Christ means that we have died to self and are risen in Him. The life in us is not our own. And of course, Paul notes elsewhere that we die and rise with him in the baptism. Our risen Lord Jesus, in the reading from Matthew, places on the remaining 11 apostles the obligation to go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe what Christ has commanded. So Paul’s letter states what discipleship has cost him, and the same burden is laid upon all who become disciples: to die to self so that we can live in Christ.

We have to learn to accept the cross in our lives if we are truly going to die to self and live in Christ. That’s the mission of the disciple. Sometimes the cross is simply the sacrifice of earthly goods that we set aside for penance. Sometimes it’s rejection of a worldly good that our friends and neighbors claim as their just reward. Sometimes it’s the white martyrdom that comes from joyfully turning the cheek at the negative comments of a non-Catholic neighbor or family member. Sometimes it’s the weight of ministry or mission work. Some of these crosses we bear can be merely inconvenient. Others can be painful and even heartbreaking. But we try to bear those crosses in Christian joy.

Let’s not forget that the cost of discipleship can also be quite literally death. In the “Letter to the Hebrews,” a letter written to the Jews who had long before converted to Christianity, the author writes, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.” The author of this letter is evoking the spirit of the earliest Christian martyrs: James the son of Zebedee, James the less, and Stephen. The early Jewish Christians very likely knew the teachers in question and perhaps even witnessed their martyrdom. You can bet they knew the cost of discipleship. Out of the eleven apostles mentioned in the reading from Matthew, all but one, our patron St. John the Evangelist, went to a martyr’s death.

Likewise the Church in Japan in the 16th century understood the price. St. Francis Xavier started a mission to Japan early in the century, and the Jesuits were well established by mid-century, even having converted some Samurai warlords. Hideyoshi decided to expel all foreign missionaries and began persecuting Japanese Catholics. St. Paul Miki was possibly in his early 30s and was a Jesuit novice. He came from the samurai class—the nobility. Instead of taking the trappings of a warrior, he chose the black Jesuit cassock of service. He and twenty-five other Japanese Catholics were crucified on this day in 1597 and became the first Catholic martyrs of Japan.

Tertullian wrote in his famous apology for the Christian faith that “the blood of Christians is seed for the
Church.” It’s a famous line from the third century that underscores the both the cost and the attraction of discipleship. It strangely complements the last stanza of our responsorial psalm today:
He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
A faith worth dying for is a faith worth living for. As we approach the altar today, let’s remember the millions of Catholics in our past with whom we share this communion, those Christians of the past who have made witness with their lives, and those Christians worldwide who even in this day regularly die for their faith.
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