“Silence” and the Lambs of Sacrifice: Unprecedented Suffering at Christmastide

26 Martyr’s Memorial in Nagasaki, Japan. Photo Credit: Paul Louis Metzger

26 Martyrs’ Memorial in Nagasaki, Japan. Photo Credit: Paul Louis Metzger

The limited run of Martin Scorsese’s Silence that opened two days before Christmas was intended to position it for awards season. A wider launch will occur in January. A limited run at Christmas is not an unprecedented move. Something similar happened with The Revenant last year.

Other than that, it might seem unprecedented to launch Silence right around Christmas. After all, the movie is based on Shusaku Endo’s classic 1966 novel about Christian witness in Eido era Japan in the face of persecution and God’s silent presence. The film portrays the ultimate challenge to faith for two Christian missionaries who travel to Japan to find their missing spiritual mentor at a time when their faith is banned and Christians face horrific persecution. A December launch for Narnia or The Hobbit makes more sense. After all, in addition to Narnia serving as a fictionalized tale of the Gospel, each of these films has a Christmas magic feel to them. But Silence?

However, from the standpoint of Christian history, Silence’s limited run at Christmas would not be unprecedented. After all, the three days immediately following Christmas Day during Christmastide (December 26th-28th) honor St. Stephen (the 26th), the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:54-60), John the Apostle (the 27th), who was heavily persecuted for the faith (Revelation 1:9), and the holy innocents (28th), whom Herod slaughtered in the attempt to destroy the Christ child (Matthew 2:16-18). It is also worth noting that the 29th honors Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, who was also martyred.

By no means attempts at gearing up for the Oscars, these feast days in the traditional Christian calendar may very well have been placed together early on in the Twelve Days of Christmas to educate Jesus’ followers that the coming of the Prince of Peace often precedes persecution. Like their Lord, they are lambs of sacrifice. Even the Beatitudes moves from Jesus blessing those who are peacemakers to blessing those who are persecuted for righteousness:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:9-10).

Glad tidings of the Prince of Peace and persecution and suffering go together.

Even the wise men offered myrrh in addition to gold and frankincense to the Christ child, perhaps foreshadowing his anointing and preparation for burial upon his death. The Church remembers this occasion on the Twelfth Day of Christmas with the Feast of Epiphany (See the brief discussion of the giving of myrrh in “Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?”).

We live at a time when scores of people associate Christmas more with consumerism than with the all-consuming love of Jesus and the high cost of following him (See also “The Real Twelve Days of Christmas” for a discussion of their spiritual significance for us today). At this time, it is worth paying attention to the unprecedented suffering of the church’s first martyr, the only Apostle not to taste death by martyrdom but who nonetheless died daily for living out his faith, and the holy, innocent children whose lives had only just begun. Their stories speak volumes on how costly Jesus’ peace truly is.

There is more, though. It is not enough to recount how Jesus and his followers as well as those associated with him in some way were silenced as lambs of sacrifice in ancient Israel and the Roman Empire or many centuries later in Japan. As we celebrate the peace that Jesus brings at Christmastide, may we realize that their suffering will give way to the victory of resurrection life in glory.

We must not remember their suffering in morose silence, but solemn joy. Roman Catholic Genevieve Cunningham explains the meaning of solemnity for the Christmas Octave in her article “Christmastide: The Celebration Has Just Begun!”:

So first, we celebrate the octave of Christmas. This means that there are eight official solemn days of rejoicing. In the language of the Church, the word “solemn” does not mean what our common use of the word defines it as. It doesn’t mean being grim, serious, or morose.

According to a simple definition: “In the Catholic Church year, a solemnity is the highest ranking holy day possible in the Church calendar…” These are days that are emphasized by particular joy, lavishness, pomp, and glory.

The feasts honoring Stephen, John and the young innocents fall within the Octave of Christmas (the repetition of Christmas’s solemnity for eight days).

Now, in case we missed the connection above, let’s ask and answer the following: why would we celebrate their suffering with joyful solemnity and Christmas cheer during the Christmas Octave? As noted above, theirs is a victorious suffering. Orthodox Christian Stephen Brannen at One World Story makes a solid connection between suffering and victory at Christmastide:

The theme of martyrdom is inescapable in the days following Christmas, but why is this? Why is the first martyr of the Church remembered the day after Christmas?; the oldest disciple, used and abused, after that?; and the mass killing of innocent children after that? If days on the Church calendar point to realities, then the apparent conclusion would seem to be that the birth of Jesus leads to suffering and dying. This, I believe, is correct. The question is, what kind of suffering and dying?

The victorious kind.  Everything that Christ did, he did as both man and God – God redeeming man’s life, as a man, on behalf of men. His entire earthly life wrenched the life and work of mankind from the cold dead grip of the ancient curse, including death itself.  When he died, he killed death, because of course it couldn’t hold him. His eternal life, made one with the life and flesh that he took from his willing handmaiden and glorious mother Mary, he offered to the world, for the life of the world. And when his servants follow in the way that he opened, they find that suffering and death itself have already been conquered ahead of them, and are a joy and a priceless reward the second they are tasted.

There is still more to the remembrance, though. May we also remember and identify with the persecuted church across the globe today. May we not remain silent. As we continue to celebrate Christmastide and as we go to the theaters in the coming weeks to watch Scorsese’s Silence, may we call to mind our brothers and sisters across the world who suffer today. May we call out on their behalf and advocate for them.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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