The most abrupt and shocking transition in the Church’s liturgical calendar occurs from December 25th to 26th, when the Church pivots from celebrating the birth of Jesus and with it “joy to the world” and “peace on earth to those of good will” to marking the brutal stoning of St. Stephen and, at least at first glance, the ugly and unsettling refutation of joy and peace. This liturgical mood swing between “mercy mild” and monstrous martyrdom is reinforced by the Church’s memorial of the Holy Innocents massacred by Herod on December 28 and the murder in the Cathedral of the twelfth century St. Thomas Becket on December 29.
Nothing seems more distant from “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay” than the hatred and homicidal savagery directed against those who resemble or revere the Babe in swaddling in clothes. But we know that the same prophets who foretold that the “Virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel” also prophesied that that Messiah would be a Suffering Servant who would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities; the One who would inaugurate a kairos when the wolf would lie down with the lamb would also be the Lamb of God, slain to take away the sins of the world. As Simeon would declare on Jesus’ fortieth day, he who was a “light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory for your people Israel” would simultaneously be a “sign of contradiction” destined for the “ruin and resurrection” of many.
It is nevertheless disconcerting to come to realize, through daily life and Christian history, that this contradiction is more the rule than the exception.
That’s why it’s both superficially strange and profoundly fitting that Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited and critically-acclaimed movie Silence is being released the Friday before Christmas. This cinematic depiction of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 historical novel about the Japanese Martyrs helps us to enter the experience of another group of Holy Innocents, the 35,000 heroic Japanese neophytes who, in the century after St. Francis Xavier brought the Gospel to the Land of the Rising Sun, faithfully gave their lives for the One who had given his life for them.
Endo’s novel and Scorsese’s film show us the types of torture to which the Japanese Christians were subjected: scorched slowly by drops of condensed volcanic steam, crucified in the ocean by days of incessant waves of salt water, enveloped in straw mats and tossed overboard into the sea, bled to death through incisions behind the ear while hung upside down by one’s Achilles over a pit of dung.
The story also shows us their faith. Many could have totally avoided their fate simply by stepping on an image of Jesus, spitting on a Crucifix, calling the Blessed Virgin a whore, or revealing for enormous compensation the identity of “hidden Christians” or priests. Some capitulated under the pressure; multitudes refused. One of the work’s most gripping themes is betrayal and forgiveness, the recapitulation in time of the choice of Judas and whether Judas can become a Peter through the exodus from remorse to repentance, from treachery to rediscovered faith.
There are other themes, worthy of whole columns.
The movie gives us a glimpse into the Missionary zeal of the Portuguese Jesuits, who would travel around the world and confront torture and death threats to plant and water the seeds of faith among those who were previously total strangers.
It explores the theme of inculturation and whether a tree that flourished in Europe can grow in the swampy soil of Japan or whether Christian evangelization is nothing but the “persistent love of an ugly woman” who cannot bear children.
It scrutinizes the mystery of God’s supposed silence as his faithful suffer, something that the Church has pondered since Christ on Golgotha queried aloud, “My God, why have your forsaken me?”
It introduces how lay people systematically passed on the faith after all of the priests had been physically or spiritually assassinated, which is one of the most amazing stories in Church history, and a model for familial and community catechesis in every age.
What I would like to focus on most, however, is what may leave many viewers the most challenged and confused, the theme of what could be called “loving apostasy.” The sadists of the Shogunate eventually realized that while priests were prepared personally to endure every form of torture faithfully until the end, their one point of vulnerability was when their love for Christ was put into direct competition with their love for others: how the Japanese faithful would be tortured to death until and unless the priest apostatized.
The work abounds in this psychological torture: The priest protagonist is told: “The price for your glory is their suffering.” “It all depends on you whether they are set free.” “If you are a priest possessed of true Christian mercy, you must have pity for them. You cannot stand by while they die with your eyes on heaven.” “Think about the suffering you have inflicted on these people just because of your selfish dream of a Christian Japan.” “Show God you love Him. Save the lives of the people he loves.” “If Christ were here, he would have acted. Apostatized. For their sake. Christ would certainly have done at least that to help men.”
In the climactic scene of the work, the priest is tempted to “fulfill the most painful act of love that has ever been performed” by stepping on an image of Christ, whom the missionary in his moment of distress seems to hear breaking the divine silence and crying out, “Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.”
The unspoken question of the work is whether that voice, and the whole logic of denying Christ to fulfill his will and imitate his saving love, comes from Christ or from the one Christ dubbed the “father of lies.”
Would the same Christ who told us that what happened to him would happen to us, who promised that we would be hated, persecuted, and even some put to death, who told us that we who acknowledge him before others he would acknowledge before the Father, say “Step on me” to save others from martyrdom? And if one would be willing to step on an image of Christ to save others’ lives, would the same principle of compromise then be able to be applied to save others from pain or even from hurt feelings? Is apostasy an intrinsically evil breaking of our covenant with God, or merely a venial sin, or even a virtuous act under some circumstances?
These are the questions that echo loudly in Silence and make the novel and the movie so gripping.
Those in search of answers are urged to find them, like the wise men, the shepherds and the Japanese martyrs, in the Babe of Bethlehem and throughout the liturgical celebrations of the Christmas Octave.
This article originally appeared in The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass, on December 23, 2016 and appears here with permission of the author.