In one of my classes this semester, “Creative Reading for Imaginative Preaching,” we were just assigned Shusako Endo’s Silence, an award winning novel about Christian Jesuit missionaries from Portugal encountering Japan as a country unwelcome to the gospel. At the beginning of the novel, the priest Sabastian Rodrigues writes to his order with excitement:
The face of Christ rises up before my eyes. What did the face of Christ look like? This point the Bible passes over in silence. You know well that the early Christians thought of Christ as a shepherd…one hand is holding the foot of the lamb while the other clasps a staff. . . . That was how the earliest Christians envisaged the gentle face of Christ. . . . As for the medieval artists, many of them painted a face of Christ resplendent with the authority of a king. Yet tonight for me the face is that of the picture preserved in Borgo San Sepulchro. There still remains fresh in my memory the time when I saw this picture as a seminarian for the first time. Christ has one foot on the sepulcher and in his right hand he holds a crucifix. He is facing straight out and his face bears the expression of encouragement it had when he commanded his disciples three times, ‘Feed my lambs, feed my lambs, feed my lambs . . .’ It is a face filled with vigor and strength. I feel great love for that face.
By the end of the novel, after encountering betrayal and torture and executions, Rodrigues is faced with a horrific ultimatum: apostatize (deny Christ) by trampling on an image of Christ (called the fumie), or let innocent Japanese die by torture.
The fumie is now at his feet.
A simple copper medal is fixed on a grey plank of dirty wood on which the grains run like little waves. Before him is the ugly face of Christ, crowned with thorns and the thin, outstretched arms. Eyes dimmed and confused the priest silently looks down at the face which he now meets for the first time since coming to this country. . . .
‘Lord, since long, long ago, innumerable times I have thought of your face. Especially since coming to this country have I done so tens of times. When I was in hiding in the mountains of Tomogi; when I crossed over in the little ship; when I wandered in the mountains; when I lay in prison at night . . . Whenever I prayed 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 on it.’ . . .
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in 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 fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
We enter Holy Week with an image of the face of Jesus in our minds. Maybe it’s the Sunday School drawing of Jesus smiling gently with children in his lap. Maybe it’s the grant frescoes of the masters, Jesus the king of heaven. Are we willing to see Jesus bruised and bloody and dying?