A hidden, Hidden Christian, Christmas—An Advent meditation
A Japanese hidden Christian wall scroll depicting Mary holding the young Jesus, with two saints looking on (Shimano-yakata Museum, Ikitsuki)
Remaining with the theme I have unexpectedly found myself pursing with you throughout this season (see HERE and HERE), namely, uncovering things within the Advent and Christmas myths that are obscured from our view, this week I’d like to offer you a story about the birth of Jesus that was long obscured from us.
It comes from the Kakure Kirishitan community, the so called “Hidden Christians” of Japan who went into hiding following the ban on Christianity imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate at the start of the 17th century and from which they didn’t reappear into public view until 1873 when the ban was finally lifted.
(At the end of this post I have added a two-part video documentary introduction to the Kakure Kirishitan produced by NHK WORLD-JAPAN).
Their Christmas story is found in Chapter 5 of a short text called the Tenchi Hajimari no Koto, the “Beginning of Heaven and Earth,” which was committed to paper sometime in the 18th century. This is a collection of myths and folktales that included many stories which are still recognisable to Christians around the world despite the changes that have occurred to them thanks to imperfect translations and misremembrances and also as they have been creatively coloured by influences coming from Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist religious traditions. The name Santa Maruya in the title of the Christmas chapter is, of course, a clear echo of the Portuguese name for Saint Mary, Santa Maria.
Before going on it is worth noting a couple of things concerning the sources of the Kakure Kirishitan’s story about Jesus’ birth. Firstly, it draws upon, not the stories found in the canonical Gospels, but upon the much later, 7th century CE, apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Matthew. Secondly, because it appears nowhere else, the touching detail you will hear telling us that it is the warmth of the animals’ breath which saves Jesus and Mary from freezing to death, seems to be an addition original to the Kakure Kirishitan. I do not think it’s too much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that the tale’s unknown author may have experienced themselves just such a life-saving warmth whilst they were hiding in a barn one winter’s evening in order to escape arrest and possible torture and death at the hands of a representative of the shogunate. But we will never know this for sure.
Entitled “The Tribulations of Santa Maruya,” chapter 5 begins with Muruya being thrown out of her home after her parents discover she is pregnant. She is forced to stay in various places, “now here and now there” and the story tells us that during her travels she “lay down in the fields and at the foot of mountains. Under the eaves of strangers’ homes she lingered.” As the text also poignantly says: “Nothing can really compare to the difficulties she experienced.”
Finally, just as heavy snows begin to fall, she arrives in the country of Beren — echoing the Portuguese word for Bethlehem, Berem — and enters into a stable where, “among the cows and horses she crouched down and sheltered herself.” Here’s how the story then unfolds:
“In that stable from noon until midnight she observed zeshin [which derives from the Portuguese word meaning to fast —‘jejum’]. Then at midnight she gave birth. This was the birth of the Holy One. On account of the intense cold in the stable, the Holy One’s body was in danger of freezing. But the cows and horses that surrounded the mother and child breathed their warm breath on the newborn. Thanks to them the holy body was warmed and endured the winter cold. In a manger in that stable the newborn also took his first bath. Because of the great compassion that the horses and cattle showed, we are not allowed to eat meat or poultry on Wednesdays. As dawn arrived, the stable owner’s wife and others came out of the house to see. ‘Well, just imagine, in a sty like this you had a safe delivery,’ said the owner’s wife. ‘Come into our house,’ she urged Maruya, and guided her inside where they took care of Maruya in various ways and treated her kindly” (Tenchi Hajimari no Koto, the “Beginning of Heaven and Earth, p. 50).
So what relevant lessons might we take from this story today?
Well, firstly, and very straightforwardly, due to the phenomenal increase in the cost of heating and food, it stands as a powerful reminder that far too many families — including many in the UK — will be spending all nights this winter hungry and in real danger of freezing to death without even the minimal warmth Maruya and the Holy One were fortunate to receive from the cows and horses. We must not turn aside from, nor forget, this brutal truth even in a season traditionally set aside for merrymaking and joy.
Secondly, because in our own age more and more of us are beginning to see ever more clearly that our survival as a species is always already dependent upon our intra-actions with countless other kinds of creatures, the Kakure Kirishitan’s Christmas story can surely stand as a powerful reminder that we need urgently to develop a much wider conception of in what consists our true family here on Earth, namely, one that includes all beings as our brothers and sisters.
Thirdly, as we begin to think about what truly meaningful, practical measures we ourselves can take to help stop, or at least significantly slow, our descent into climate catastrophe, the expression of gratitude that the Kakure Kirishitan showed towards the farm animals that resulted in them refraining from eating meat or poultry is something we, too, can and should begin to practise, and not on Wednesdays alone but on ever increasing numbers of days in the week.
And lastly, for today anyway, the Kakure Kirishitan’s story reminds us that there is not, nor ever has been, a single, simple tradition that can be called Christianity. The most one can say is that there have been, and continue to be many Christianities and no, single form of Christianity is, of necessity, more true and life enhancing and enriching than another.
Despite this undeniable truth, most conventional, modern Christian communities would not consider the Kakure Kirishitan to be Christians at all but heretics practising a new and entirely separate, syncretic religion bearing no relation to the Christianity first brought to them in the mid-1500s by the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries.
Looked at in a certain way this is, of course, true. But let’s not forget how Jesus’ own goodness struck off at what the philosopher Ernst Bloch describes as “a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition” (Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press, London 2009, p. 71). In order properly to heed the hopeful call of freedom he had heard, and which he proclaimed in the form of the kingdom of God in and among us on earth, Jesus chose — and remember the word heretic is is derived from the Greek word meaning a “choosing for oneself” (“hairesis”) — Jesus chose a hopeful movement forward into a radically new form of life and religion very, very different from the Second Temple Judaism he inherited.
True, the Kakure Kirishitan did not choose the persecution that initially forced them into what eventually became four-hundred-and-fifty years of hiding during which their Christian faith underwent the radical metamorphosis that eventually produced their new and utterly unique form of life and religion. But it is telling that when Japan’s Meiji government finally lifted the ban on Christianity in 1873, although some Kakure Kirishitan did rejoin the Catholic Church, the majority chose not to and continued to practise their own form of faith which, by then, had so clearly struck off at such a singularly sharp angle, away from Roman Catholic tradition.
So, today, I give thanks for the precious gift of their eventual choice, their beautiful and fully conscious heresy. And, although all the Kakure Kirishitan communities in Japan are now very close to extinction I, as a minister in a similarly threatened liberal Christian heretical tradition, will continue to honour their heresy by remembering their story and listening well to the many hopeful and healing messages that can still be heard in it.