In 16th century Japan, Catholic missionaries converted as many as 300,000 people. But by the end of that century, the Japanese government increasingly saw Catholicism as a threat and began persecuting Catholics. Christianity on the whole was eventually banned, and many of those Japanese who refused to abandon their faith were killed. A group of 26 Japanese Catholics — known as the Holy Martyrs of Japan — were executed by crucifixion on Feb. 5, 1597, at Nagasaki. It wasn’t until Christian missionaries returned to Japan 250 years later (St. Maximilian Kolbe among them) that a community of “hidden Catholics” practicing their faith underground was discovered.
How could these people keep the faith alive and remain steadfast to the Way of Christ for so long? How can we keep our own personal faith alive and remain steadfast to the Way for the remaining days, or weeks, or months of this present pandemic? The Japanese “hidden” Church struggled mightily, but the people prayed with and for each other, they celebrated Baptisms (which, in an emergency, any Catholic person can do), and they continued to share kindness and love.
Many are asking these days, “How can we survive without the Sacraments?” Well, we aren’t exactly “without” the Sacraments. This is the first of several installments on how the Sacramental life of the Church is still very much present to us and is still very much a part of us.
Today: Baptism. In the Old Testament of the Bible, there is a vast amount of time and attention given to the Exodus event, the forty-year sojourn of Moses and the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. The Book of Exodus highlights the passage through the Red Sea at the beginning of this journey. The Church, from our earliest days, has seen this passage as a central symbol of each believer’s all-important passage through Baptismal waters.
Another Old Testament Biblical account, taken from the book of Joshua, describes how Moses had just died, and the children of Israel were about to finally enter the Promised Land. Before they did so, they had to cross the Jordan river, but they had no way to cross on their own. Reminding us of His action at the Red Sea forty years earlier, God states in Joshua ch. 3: ““As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. Now command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, there take your stand.’ When the soles of the feet of the priests carrying the ark of the Lord, the Lord of the whole earth, touch the waters of the Jordan, it will cease to flow; the water flowing down from upstream will halt in a single heap. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.”
These two Biblical accounts serve as “bookends.” In the Book of Exodus (at the beginning of the journey) the Lord parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape Pharaoh. In the book of Joshua (at the end of the same journey) God parted the Jordan River so His people could pass into the Land of Promise. The “connection” to our experience is that, through Baptism, Christ Himself has parted the waters of the Baptismal font. He has led us through the death of Baptism, into new life, and He leads us now and forever into a promising future.
So, is it true that we are trying to make our way these days without the Sacraments of the Church? Of course not! Living our Baptism is a first and crucially important way we can continue to rely on the grace that is already ours, given to us by God. Pray that that grace will be renewed in you every time you bless yourself with holy water, whether at home or (sometime in the future) in the Church. Bless yourself and your family members with holy water and pray each time that God will renew the grace already given you. To do so would help you live out your Baptism as God’s children and be the presence of God to others. Tomorrow: more on how we can “live” our Baptism each day.
Let us pray:
O God, may my life’s journey through the waters of Baptism renew me.
Help me to come to know more intimately both my weakness and the depths of your love for me.
By your grace, I have come to experience the mystery of the gift of life you offer.
Please help me to remain free and faithful this day that I might grow as a servant of Jesus’ own mission.
I ask this with gratitude for my Baptism and with growing faith in the name of Jesus, the Lord. Amen.