“Silence” during Holy Week

“Silence” during Holy Week

Is God’s speech sometimes more painful than his silence?

This is but one question raised by Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel. And it is especially relevant as we now approach the end of Holy Week.

For almost the duration of story, Father Sebastian Rodrigues longs for just one word from God on behalf of his persecuted people. But when that word comes, it is the last thing the priest expected.

While I have yet to see the film adaptation of Silence by Martin Scorsese, I have just read the book for Lent.

It is not for the faint of heart.

SILENCE

[*SPOILERS BELOW]

The story follows the path of Jesuit missionaries as they set out for 17th century Japan.

After flourishing in a prior generation, Christianity now faces unspeakable persecution there as the faithful are brutally drowned at sea, slashed by samurai, and tortured over pits of human excrement. In the midst of the butchery, Father Rodrigues sneaks ashore to serve the suffering church, and to investigate the whereabouts of his mentor, Father Ferreira.

Ferreira had been a celebrated missionary, but rumors now swirl that he has renounced the faith and even trampled on a picture (fumie) of Christ as public proof of this apostasy.

Rodrigues must find out the truth.  Yet after a brief period of ministry, the priest is betrayed, captured, and finally brought to meet the man that he has searched for: Ferreira.

The famous missionary has now adopted the dress and customs of Japan, and he explains what led to his apostasy. After capture, he was hung upside down for three days over the dreaded pit, and all without recanting. But after being taken down, the local magistrate  devised a more insidious torture.

In Ferreira’s place, innocent peasants were suspended over the pit, and Ferreira was told that only his trampling upon the Christ-picture could free them. Ferreira trampled.

Eventually, Rodrigues is given the same choice, yet he resolves never to deny his Lord. Still, even before the fateful moment, the reader senses that Rodrigues’ resolve is sinking like the peasants in the sea.

His aching question throughout the novel has pertained to God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Why does he say nothing!?

“… the silence of God was something I could not fathom … surely he should speak but a word… .”

This excruciating muteness provides a backdrop for almost the entire novel.

Almost.

In the end, Rodrigues looks down at the picture of Jesus—worn and grimy from so many feet—and at long last he hears the voice of Christ, as clear as crystal:

“Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot upon the fumie [picture]. Dawn broke. And far into the distance the cock crew.

RESPONDING TO SILENCE

Is Rodrigues is more like Jesus or Judas?

Is he more like Peter heading to his martyrdom, or Peter just before the rooster crowed?

Is it actually “Christ-like” for the priest to endure what he perceives to be “damnation” so that others might be freed?

And which is more intolerable for Rodrigues, God’s silence or his unexpected speech?

Which is more intolerable for us?

Rodrigues and Ferreira are hardly the only Christians to wrestle with such questions.

The apostle Paul himself once claimed that, if possible, he would gladly be “cut off from Christ” if it meant salvation for the Jews (Rom. 9.3).

And in a different vein, the ardent pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed on to a plot to kill Hitler while refusing to justify such violence. Instead, he was resolved to “bear the guilt,” so that others might go free.

Did Rodrigues do that?

Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer publicly denounced their Lord.

But what if Christ had commanded them to “trample”?

Would Jesus say such a word?

Despite unanswered questions, Silence remains, in many ways, a deeply Christian work—which explains why the Pope recently offered Martin Scorsese a blessing on the movie version.

But unlike so much that passes for “Christian” art these days, Endo’s masterpiece does not gloss over the dark travails of faith.

And as such, it fits perfectly amid the silent shadows of the Lenten season.


Interested in understanding the Big Story of the Bible? Check out my new book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Videoteachings to help church small groups.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.


This is a reposting of Lenten meditation from March, 2017.

“Tear this temple down”

“Tear this temple down”

There is a horrific irony that the iconic Notre Dame cathedral went up in a hail of flame and ash at the very start of Holy Week.

Holy week, of all times.

Nearly two millennia ago, Christ began this week with some similarly shocking actions in the temple of his day.

He walked into what was arguably the world’s most impressive house of worship, and pronounced judgment by turning over tables and condemning what had become a “den of [leston]” (brigands, robbers, revolutionaries). The event leads to a variety of interpretations, but both liberal and conservative scholars agree that Jesus’ actions in the temple led quickly and directly to his death.

It was the straw that broke the devil’s back.

At his trial, the false charge was that Christ had threatened to destroy the building:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).

But the “temple” he had spoken of was his body (John 2:21).

In the years that followed, the early church developed a strange new view of earthly sanctuaries. It was not that they had disdain for buildings. But for them, the body is the only true temple (1 Pet 2:5; 1 Cor 6:19).

God’s Spirit dwells not in brick and mortar but in flesh and bone.

The Spirit resides in the frail frame of an Indonesian teenager, trafficked for her sexual value. The Spirit rests in the elderly man, who suffers from dementia, and is forgotten by his family. The Spirit blows upon the fetus with Down Syndrome, the convict in the county jail, and the CEO in her corner office.

The body is our only temple.

This does not mean, of course, that earthly buildings are either bad or unimportant. Far from it! I feel sickened watching the famed spire of Notre Dame go tumbling into oblivion. What a loss! (And I have written similarly of even ancient, pagan shrines.)

Still, the message of Holy Week is that though our earthly dwellings (of all sizes, shapes, and skin colors) may be stripped to their very foundations “more can be mended than you know.”

 


Interested in understanding the Big Story of the Bible? Check out my new book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Videoteachings to help church small groups.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.


*that last line is one of my favorites from Francis Spufford, in his work, Unapologetic.