Today’s Mass readings converge two critical turning points in Biblical history: King David’s dying words and Jesus’ parting words as he sent off his disciples. The Church aligns these readings on the day commemorating the Japanese martyrs. The juxtaposition of these three moments provides a clear set of messages for how we are to live our lives.
The way the Church orders Scripture and Church history in ways that speak to our daily lives demonstrates a distinguishing aspect of Catholicism. The Church preceded Scripture; it was the written accounts which the Church collected and authorized in assembly which formed the book we know as the Bible. The Church has gathered more than the Biblical narrative, but incorporates the whole history of the Church’s faithful: the teachers, leaders, saints and martyrs who carry forth the ongoing drama of Salvation History. We are part of this story, and seeing the lessons for our personal lives amidst the Church’s carefully arranged Biblical passages and commemorations provides us with a daily roadmap to live the liturgy to the fullest.
David’s Dying Words
On King David’s deathbed, he tells his sons that his death is just the regular course of life, and he reminds them to follow the guideposts for a life devoted to the Lord: “I am going the way of all flesh. Take courage and be a man. Keep the mandate of the Lord, your God, following his ways and observing his statutes, commands, ordinances, and decrees as they are written in the law of Moses, that you may succeed in whatever you do, wherever you turn, and the Lord may fulfill the promise he made on my behalf.”
David reminds his sons of David’s promise to God and God’s promise to their family: “If your sons so conduct themselves that they remain faithful to me with their whole heart and with their whole soul, you shall always have someone of your line on the throne of David.” (1 Kings 2:1-4)
David, despite his sins and struggles, practiced ongoing repentance and striving to live a life worthy of God’s promise. The Church tells us, through David’s example, that we are called to carry forth the promises our families have made to God. Each of us is connected to lineages beyond our direct awareness, and the best must carry forth in commitment to the faith. Death is not a point of departure, but a point of connecting to fundamental promises, which we — in turn — carry forth for our children and generations to come. This is the way of the faithful of God.
Jesus’ Send-off to his Disciples
Jesus sends off his disciples to preach repentance and to cure the sick. He warns them to practice humility by taking nothing with them; instead, he tells them to rely on God’s providence and on the charity of the people. He also tells them to “shake the dust off their feet as testimony against” anyone who does not welcome them. (Mark 6:7-13)
The message to us is clear: We need nothing but Jesus’ blessing to share the Good News and bring others to the faith. He also warns us not to dwell on the faithless, but to move forward and witness to those ready to receive the word. We are his instruments, not his mavericks.
The Japanese Martyrs and the Suffering of Silence
King David’s message to his sons to not see his death as anything more than the natural course of life but to remain focused on faithful commitment to service to God clearly aligns with Jesus’ message as his disciples set off to carry the Good News far and wide.
Japan once seemed the furthest outpost of the Christian mission, first traversed by St. Francis Xavier in the mid-1500s. Missionary efforts in Japan proved fruitful until Japanese authorities became suspicious that the conversion of Japanese Christians was a precursor to western conquest of the country. The persecutions recurred over the next 100 years, with countless martyrs unnamed and a handful known and honored by the Church on this day of remembrance. Note that the story continues, as many commemorate Our Lady of Akita’s appearances starting in the early 1970s; this revelation has been neither condemned nor yet sanctioned by the Church, ever-cautious before endorsing private revelation.
The author, Shusaku Endo, wrote Silence in the early 1960s to retell the story of the Japanese martyrs from the perspective of a Portuguese priest who journeys to Japan to investigate claims that a priest he trained had become an apostate amidst the trials of Japanese martyrdom. Endo uncovers the psychological strains of silence as the cruelest of all tortures upon man. In this novel, Endo states: “Jesus knew the silence of the Father.” How many times do we struggle within the silence of our hearts?
Applying these Messages to our Lives
If I place myself in the role of David’s son at his deathbed, I think my attachment to the person of my father would blind me to the larger call in my life. If I place myself in the role of the disciples going off to confront demons and negotiate among people who may not welcome me, I would recoil in fear. If I place myself in the silence of the Japanese martyrs who faced isolation and uncertainty in the long torture preceding their extraordinary suffering, my ears pound with terror.
By nature we are weak. The messages that the Bible teaches, the martyrs witness, and the Church orders for our instruction remind me that amidst personal loss, danger, isolation and pain, we must remain energetic in living out and witnessing the faith. These models of heroic persistence in moments of greatest strain lift our gaze away from the blindness of our internal griefs and fears to the eternal.