Good Friday

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

The hour is drawing near, and Father Sebastian Rodriques knows it.

The young Portuguese priest in Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, which recently was made into a movie, has watched as Japanese Christians have been tortured and killed in ways that have been so cruel that a beheading seems humane.

Yet none of those who have been in such agony have betrayed or recanted their faith.

Rodriques, in his prison cell, prays that he will have the same strength when his time comes. He has known from the beginning that coming to Japan was to put his life in danger and his faith to the test.

When Jesuit missionaries first brought Christianity to Japan in the year 1549, the new religion flourished. Within just a few decades almost 300,000 Japanese became followers of Christ.

Now, a century later, everything has changed. Christianity is outlawed, and the authorities have been relentless in persecuting those who secretly follow Jesus. Amazingly, despite the crucifixions, water torture and burnings, no Christian priest has betrayed the faith.

That is, until word reaches Portugal that Father Christavo Ferreira has apostatized, has betrayed his faith and recanted his belief in Jesus.

Rodriques, safely in Portugal, refuses to believe it. Before going to Japan, Ferreira had been him seminary professor and friend. Rodriques immediately volunteers to go to Japan to learn the truth about his friend.

Rodriques has been in peril from the moment he set foot on the island. He has learned nothing about his mentor. But he himself has been captured, and has witnessed the heroic faith of the Japanese peasants who cling to their faith in Jesus.

Just that day he has seen four martyrs go to their deaths. He has been forced to watch as the authorities brought out the fumie, the icon of Christ, and put it on the ground in front of the peasants, demanding that they step on the face of the Savior. Steadfastly they refused.

That night in prison Rodriques thinks of another long ago night in Gethsemane. “Yes, crouching on the ashen earth that had imbibed all the heat of the day, alone and separated from his disciples, a man had said, ‘My soul is sorrowful, even unto death.’ And his sweat had become like drops of blood.

“This was the face that was now before Rodriques’ eyes. Tonight he focused all his attention on the emaciated expression on those cheeks.”

The next day Rodriques is brought for cross examination before the authorities, like Jesus before Herod. He is then bound and placed on a donkey and taken to Nagasaki, the center of power. All along the way, peasants line the route, looking with interest at the foreigner, jeering and taunting and spitting at him.

“Here he was riding through the streets of Nagasaki on a donkey,” Rodriques thinks. “Another man had entered Jerusalem – likewise riding on a donkey. And it was that man who had taught him that the most noble expression of the face of man is the glad acceptance of insult and injury. He would preserve such an expression to the end. That was the face of a Christian.”

But Rodriques finds he cannot do so.

“At first he tried to smile, but it was no longer possible. The only thing he could do was close his eyes and try not to see the faces that jibed at him. He wondered if Jesus had smiled gently when the multitudes surrounded Pilate’s mansion with shrieks and howls of rage.

“Rodriques was distracted by the tormenting pain of the rope which bit into his wrists whenever he moved his body, but what grieved him most was his inability to love these people as Christ had loved them.”

Finally, they reach their destination. Rodriques is thrown into yet another foul—smelling, dank, dark, and lonely cell.

“Leaning his head against the wall, the priest followed his usual custom of thinking that that man Jesus, whom he loved. Just as a young man might envisage the face of his intimate friend who is far away, the priest had the habit of imagining the face of Christ in his moments of solitude.

“Now in the darkness the face seemed close beside him. At first it was silent, but pierced him with a glance that was filled with sorrow. And then it seemed to speak to him: ‘When you suffer, I suffer with you. To the end I am close to you.;”

Rodriques’ musings an interrupted by a noise in the distance. He realizes it is the sound of snoring. He laughs. One of the guards is sound asleep, undoubtedly drunk with sake.

“Here he was in this dark cell overwhelmed with the emotion of a man who faces death, while another man snored in this carefree way – the thought struck him as utterly ludicrous. That on this, the most important night of his whole life, he should be disturbed by such a vile and discordant noise – this realization filled him with rage.

“Rodriques began to beat against the wall. Soon there came the noise of the door being opened, and from the distance the sound of feet hastening rapidly toward him.

“’Father, what is wrong? What is wrong?’ It was the interpreter who spoke; and his voice was that of the cat playing with its prey.

“’It’s that snoring,’ answered the priest through the darkness.

“Suddenly the interpreter became silent as if in astonishment. ‘You think that is snoring…’ He turns to someone behind him. ‘Did you hear what he said? He thought that sound was snoring!’”

Behind the interpreter is Rodriques’ former teacher, Ferreira.

“’Tell him what it is!’” the interpreter demands.

“Rodriques heard the voice of Ferreira, that voice he had heard every day long ago – it was low and pitiful. ‘That’s not snoring. That is the moaning of Christians hanging in the pit.’

“’I was here just like you,’ Ferreira said. ‘I was imprisoned here, and that night was darker and colder than any night in my life. I, too, heard those voices: I heard the groaning of men in the pit.’

“’They bind you in such a way that you can move neither hands nor feet,’ Ferreira explained. ‘And then they hang you upside down in a pit. They make little openings behind your ears so that  you don’t die immediately. The blood trickles out drop by drop.’”

Rodriques was stunned. While he had been squatting in the darkness, someone had been groaning as the blood dripped from his nose and mouth.

“He had uttered no prayer; he had laughed. He had believed in his pride that he alone in this night was sharing in the suffering of Jesus. But here just beside him were people who were sharing in that suffering much more than he.”

Ferreira spoke again. “Listening to those groans all night I was no longer able to give praise to the Lord. I did not betray my faith because I was suspending in the pit. For three days, I who stand before you was hung in a pit of foul excrement, but I did not say a single word that might betray my God.’

“Ferreira raised a voice that was like a growl as he shouted: ‘The reason I apostatized…are you ready? Listen! I was put in here and heard the voices of those people for whom God did nothing. I prayed with all my strength, but God did nothing.’

“’When I spent that night here five people were suspended in the pit. Five voices were carried to my ears on the wind. The official said, ‘If you apostatize those people will immediately be taken out of the pit, their bonds will be loosened, and we will put medicine on their wounds.’

“’I answered: ‘Why do these people not apostatize?’ And the official laughed as he answered me: ‘They have many times. But as long as you don’t apostatize these peasants cannot be saved.’”

“But in return for their earthly sufferings, those people will receive a reward of eternal joy,” Rodriques protested.

“’Don’t deceive yourself!’ Ferreira said. “’You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with  your own salvation. If you say that you will betray your faith, those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering.

“’And you refuse to do so. It’s because you dread to betray the Church. You dread to be the dregs of the Church, like me. And yet is you way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here….’”

“For a moment Ferreira remained silent, then he suddenly broke out in a strong voice: ‘Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.’

“’No, no!’ said Rodriques, covering his face with his hands and wrenching his voice through his fingers. ‘No, no!’

“For love Christ would  have apostatized,’ Ferreira repeated. ‘Even if it meant giving up everything he had.

“You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,’ said Ferreira, taking his former student gently by the shoulder. “’Your brethren in the Church will judge you as they have judged me. But there is something more important than the Church.”

The icon of Jesus is at Rodriques’ feet.

“’Lord, since long, long ago, innumerable times I have thought of your face,’ the priest prayed. ‘When I crossed over in the little ship; when I wandered in the mountains; when I lay in prison at night.

“’Whenever your face appeared before me; when I was alone I thought of your face imparting a blessing; when I was captured your face as it appeared when you carried your cross gave me life.

“’This face is deeply ingrained in my soul – the most beautiful, the most precious thing in the world has been living in my heart. And now with this foot I am going to trample it.’”

“Rodriques raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure. How his foot aches!

“And then the Christ in the bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in  your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

“The priest placed his foot on the icon. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

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