Roses of Martyrdom - C. M. Cresswell

A Chaplet from Japan

The "noble army of martyrs "is of all ages and of all lands. Its ranks stretch from St. Stephen and the holy Apostles to the victorious saints of the Ten Persecutions, and to the Christians who died rather than acknowledge the false prophet Mohammed. After them, age by age, follow the missionaries and their converts, suffering for the Faith in every land on the face of the globe. In days nearer our own time we may remember the thirteen nuns of Compiegne, who sang the Veni Creator at the foot of the guillotine, and the many other martyrs of the great French Revolution; while, scarcely fifty years ago, in Cochin-China, there were blessed ones who died by hundreds for CHRIST. Thus is that army a glorious, ever-growing host of "every nation, and kindred, and tongue." From St. John, the beloved disciple, martyr in will if not in deed, to Bishop John Patteson, of the year 1871, whose memorial-pulpit may be seen in our own Exeter Cathedral; from Grecian Margaret in far-off Eastern Antioch to Indian Margaret in far-off Western Onontague of Canada, whose tale you may read for yourselves more than beautifully told by Dr. Neale in his Lent Legends—those have been without number who have confessed CHRIST before men unto the death; and we are assured that yet others will be added to their great company.

In all this wide and countless host stands no more glorious legion than that which bears the name—" The Martyrs of Japan." During the sixteenth century the Cross was carried to the Far East, and in hundreds and thousands the Japanese embraced its Faith. In hundreds and thousands too they died for it when the great persecution broke out which, for a time, destroyed Christianity in Japan. The maid-servant proto-martyr of Firando (for it is a servant-girl who holds that honour in that legion), beautiful Queen Grace of Tango; the tiny boy, whose little legs could only keep pace with his executioner by running with all their baby might; old blind Damien of Amangucchi, who, when the missionaries were driven away, took on his shoulders, as far as was possible to one lacking Holy Orders, the whole management of the infant Church in his district—teaching, baptizing, visiting the sick—till rewarded with the crown of martyrdom; men and women, young and old, rich and poor, passed by trials as fearful as any endured by the early martyrs, to their exceeding great reward in heaven.

This is the story of some of those holy ones.

Night had fallen over the prison of Arima, near Nagasaki, in the southernmost island of the Empire of Japan, but, in one of the wards where the dungeon-darkness, heavier and blacker than that of the star-spangled vault outside, was lit only by a few smoky torches, none of its inmates had laid themselves down to sleep. For, when the next day had passed into night, they were to be led out to a cruel death. First among the prisoners were three Christian nobles of Arima who had refused to deny their Faith. With them, according to Japanese custom, were their children and relatives, Christians also, who were to suffer at the same times—in all a considerable company. This story, however, is not chiefly concerned with these noblemen—noble, indeed, in every sense—but with a little group by itself in yonder corner.

A Japanese lady, young and beautiful, clasped in her arms her son, a boy of eleven, who, half-kneeling at her side, had laid his head on her shoulder. Near him was a young girl, two or three years older, who, though not his sister, had, as her loving face and actions showed, a sister's and a daughter's affection for the other two.

"And so, James," the lady said, "by this time to-morrow—for it is now past midnight—we may hope, please GOD, to have already triumphed. I have prayed all day, and I pray again now, that He keep thee faithful and strengthen thee through thy painful trial." "Fear not, mother," answered the boy, with a gay smile—" He will do that. I am young and weak, I know, but I have given myself to Him, as we all have—thou, and those yonder, and Magdalen here, who is only a year or so older than I am, and a girl too."

"I think," said the lady, "that Magdalen is wholly His already, by the vow with which she bound herself to Him in perpetual virginity. But thou art only a child, not yet from school, never having known pain or sorrow."

"Yet fear not," replied the boy gently, as he pressed closer to her side; "the greater my weakness, the greater His strength. Do not trouble thyself for me. Tell us, mother, is it true, as we heard before our arrest, that thy friend Martha and her little grandsons have already triumphed? I thought I heard the good father bring thee tidings of their martyrdom."

"It is true, James," she answered; "and none died more bravely than those children. The father told me that even the soldiers who were sent to slay them were moved by their courage. Doubtless, my darlings, to-morrow night we shall hear about it from their own blessed lips. Those children, James," she added with a look of yearning love on her son, "were younger than thou art. May thy triumph equal theirs!"

"For the third time, mother, I say, do not fear," cried the boy; "dost thou think me so great a coward or my love for CHRIST so little," he whispered sadly, "that thou thinkest I am certain to fall?"

"My child, I know thou lovest Him," the lady cried. "It is only my weak, foolish heart that fears lest thou shouldst lose thy most blessed reward. Their trial also was less than ours shall be, for it was by the sword, and ours must be by fire. They tell me too that we shall be so loosely bound that the cords will perish at the first breath of flame, so that naught but our wills may hold us firm at our stakes."

"His will shall hold me there," said the boy; "I only pray that we may be side by side at that hour—and dear Magdalen too," he added, putting his hand lovingly in hers. "But, see, the holy father yonder beckons us to join the rest—mother, the heavenly Feast is prepared."

The three went over to the circle of light, where the other prisoners knelt round the priest, who had come to be in their midst for these last few hours. There, from his hands, they received the most Holy Sacrament of the precious Body and Blood of our LORD JESUS CHRIST, that, from that moment, through the suspense of the day of waiting, and the torment of the following night, they might truly have with them the strength of His invisible Presence to sustain and comfort them, until their eyes opened, in His kingdom, on the blaze of His eternal visible Presence for evermore.

The day dawned and waned; night came again, and the faithful company knew that their hour was at hand. They put on the white robes, that they, like all the other Japanese martyrs, when possible, had taken care to prepare beforehand for their death, and surrendered themselves calmly to the executioners who came to lead them forth. Though James did not know it, he was the centre of interest His mother even heard bets offered and taken as to his constancy when the fire should loosen his bonds, and her soul shrank within her at the mere idea of leaving him an apostate on earth, when she might be called to her immortal crown.

They passed out of the prison-doors into the fresh night air. A marvellous sight, fit to inspire courage into the most trembling heart, awaited them. True enough, yonder, before their eyes, the faggots and the stakes stood in the place of death, prepared for them in the centre of a wide, bare plain. But a great concourse of hundreds upon hundreds of people awaited them, all with lighted candles in their hands—the assembled Christians from all the country around, who had come to witness the passing of the martyrs to the life unending! James's eyes were dazzled with the light, and a sudden rush of tears further dimmed them. His mother stooped to whisper to him.

"See, my son, the Church Militant here on earth, as the Church Triumphant yonder in heaven, stands to witness our confession. And CHRIST the LORD waits to acknowledge us before His FATHER."

The child's emotion at the crowds gathered before him prevented his answering, and they proceeded in silence to the place of death. There a true sorrow awaited him. He was separated from Magdalen and his mother. The executioners thought his constancy might be the less if he were allotted a stake apart from those who loved him. When her son was torn from her, the first pallor of fear spread over the mother's face, and a wistful look woke in James's eyes. But, in his case, it suddenly yielded to a smile of wonderful brightness, as if some idea that caused him pleasure had flashed through his mind. Still smiling, he was led away. Magdalen was permitted to remain with his mother. His own stake stood far to the left, near one of the noblemen.

The tall posts, with their heaps of faggots, had been placed a little distance from one another, the intervening spaces being carpeted with masses of small, dry brushwood, that would burn with the utmost fierceness and, very little smoke. James, like the other confessors, kissed his stake, and was bound, by his hands only, with fine fibres. His mother had spoken truly. He could easily have broken them, with one pull of his strong young arms.

The nobleman bound near him addressed him in cheering, earnest words. From the other side, beyond a long line of stakes, his mother and Magdalen smiled to him. The watching Christians had made a great ring round the centre pyre—an amphitheatre of loving, faithful hearts, such as, perhaps, had never been seen before in the Church's history. Those who had banded themselves together in the "Confraternity of Martyrs" stood near their leader, who unrolled and held aloft a banner on which was a picture of the SON of GOD, bound like the sufferers, to a post.

"See, my child," his companion said to James, "He was bound for us, as we stand bound for Him. But now He sits in glory unspeakable at the right hand of the FATHER, and will there take us to Himself this night. Fear not the passing. A few minutes now, and we shall meet yonder, and say to one another, `There shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.'"

Even as he spoke, and James in silence smiled his bright reply, the fatal moment came. The executioners set fire to the first pile of fuel, which had been placed at some distance from the central pyre, that the sufferings of the martyrs might be prolonged by the gradual approach of the dread element of death. As the flames shot up in a great tower of light to the sky, a prayer, that was at once a groan for their own sins and a petition for strength for the sufferers, broke from the watching multitudes, who fell on their knees and stretched their hands up to heaven.

James's friend bent forward as far as he could from his stake, to encourage his little fellow martyr: but the child's eyes were bright and fearless, and, though he did not speak, he still smiled eagerly, as one who waits.

James and Magdalene of Nagasaki


Nearer and nearer crept the gleaming, leaping torrent, while the shouts of the executioners mingled with the prayers of the spectators. Nearer and nearer—and now the heat began to be felt and the martyrs' voices, encouraging one another, mingled with the other sounds. Nearer and nearer—and the air grew like a furnace-blast. Far off, loving mother-eyes watched James; his friend, the nobleman, again bent to speak, earnestly, anxiously. The child's face glowed in the awful heat, the perspiration streamed from it; but still he did not flinch.

Now the fire was upon them. With a crackle and a roar, the scattered brushwood caught, and the whole space was a sea of crimson flame. The thin bonds flared up and withered, and the martyrs stood free.

Every eye was on the boy. Would he, could he stand, of his own free will, in that awful, fiery torrent? Yet one moment he remained motionless. Then, with his little hands over his face, to shield it from the fire, he sprang forward from his stake.

A groan, not of pain, but of sorrow came from his companion's lips; and the mother's heart nearly broke, as she bowed herself in an agony greater than any anguish of the flame.

But the boy's faith and courage had not faltered. It was through, the fire, not out of it, that he ran: through the raging, devouring torrent, until, with a glad cry that rang triumphant he had thrown himself into the arms of his mother.

"Thou seest!" he whispered, He hath held me fast!"

They stood together, locked in a close embrace. Beside them, Magdalen, freed from her bonds, stooped down, and, gathering in her hands the glowing embers, set them as a bridal wreath in her hair. It was her last act. Her knees trembled, and she fell forward as if in the prostration of prayer, and CHRIST her Bride-groom crowned her, not with flame, but with unfading flowers, and gathered her to His embrace.

The mother of James, forgetful now, as ever, of herself, found strength to bless and comfort her son in his last moments. Almost at the same instant their souls departed, and they passed, as it were, hand in hand—"unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living GOD, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the Firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to GOD the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to JESUS."