July 25, the Feast of Saint James the Greater

Saint James the Greater by Guido Reni, ca. 1636-1638

          Today, July 25, is the Feast of Saint James the Greater, the first of Christ’s Apostles to suffer martyrdom. He and his brother Saint John the Beloved were nicknamed “Sons of Thunder” by Jesus for their audacious faith and desire for glory.

          Perhaps it was audacious, thunderous preaching of the Word of God from out of the mouth of Saint James, that Son of Thunder, that drove King Herod Agrippa to order his beheading in A.D. 44—a year that also saw the death of Herod himself while he was on a visit to Caesarea. Saint Luke tells us in Acts of the Apostles:

          On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them [i.e. the people of Tyre and Sidon]. The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.                                                                                                                 Acts 12:21-23 (NRSV)

          A fitting recompense for taking the life of a chosen Apostle of Christ—yet the voice of that Son of Thunder is eternally alive in his epistle, tempered and honed to perfection.

          My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

                                                       James 1:2-4 (NRSV)

          I think this is the soul of martyrdom: a perfected joy, mature and complete, that steels a believer even in the very jaws of the lion.

Antonio Ishihara Magoemon: Warrior, Merchant, Martyr


Antonio Ishihara Magōemon:

Warrior of Bizen, Merchant of Sanuki, and Faithful Samurai of Christ

July 16, 1617


                                               Ikoma Masatoshi

        It all started with a lust for vengeance burning in the heart of a certain man of Sanuki who had been the loser in a certain lawsuit. Digging for dirt with which to destroy the victor, he heard that his opponent was harboring a Christian uncle in his home and reported this to the Daimyō of Sanuki, Ikoma Masatoshi. The uncle slipped away discreetly, unscathed, but the unsubstantiated charge sparked a roundup of Christians in Ikoma’s domain—a roundup that turned up several faithful Catholics, none of whom was willing to deny the Faith.

       Seven or eight of these Ikoma exiled from his domain, thus ridding his hands of them—perhaps they were peasants, inconsequential men living hand-to-mouth. But then there was the man named Ishihara Magōemon: a man of means, a warrior-turned-merchant who was also a faithful Kirishitan christened Antonio.

            Antonio Ishihara Magōemon had served as a samurai of Bizen until the autumn of 1600, when the dynasty of the Tokugawa Shōguns was set in stone by Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory over the Western forces at the battle of Sekigahara on 21 October of that year. Antonio would probably have served the Daimyō of Bizen, Ukita Hideie, on the Western side—the losing side—until that day, after which he would have found himself cut loose from both his erstwhile earthly lord and his living.

            With samurai grit he rebuilt his life, becoming a successful merchant in the province of Sanuki on the island of Shikoku, most likely in the town of Takamatsu, a short sail from Bizen across the Seto Inland Sea. That is where he met his faithful end on 16 July 1617, offering his neck to the executioner’s sword rather than mouth the words of apostasy that both friends and foes were urgently demanding of him.

            In 1616, Antonio had traveled to the province of Harima, just east of Bizen, on the trail of a certain priest, presumably traveling incognito, who had come to Sanuki to minister to its Catholic faithful but had somehow missed Antonio. Catching up with this intrepid missionary, Antonio confessed his sins and received not only Christ’s absolution, but also a cornucopia of Christian teaching from out of the mouth of this man who was living on the very sword’s edge of death to fulfill his vows to Christ. Antonio then returned to Sanuki afire with the Spirit and began to live his faith openly and boldly, indifferent to the Shōgun’s ban on Christianity. On Sundays, he opened his home to his fellow-Catholics for prayer, discussion and spiritual reading.

       Then the roundup: when the Daimyō’s men came sniffing around for Christians, one or more of Antonio’s neighbors, terrified to have an openly-practicing Kirishitan in their midst, reported his faithful love of God and neighbor to them. At that report, Ikoma, the Daimyō, exploded with rage, ordered the good man’s arrest, and confiscated all his property.

       In his imprisonment, Antonio was deluged with pleas from his friends, both pagan and Christian, that he make a merely-outward show of recantation in order to appease the Daimyō’s anger and thereby save not merely his own life, but those of his wife and children too, not to mention his confiscated property. Antonio replied that he would obey his lord the Daimyō in everything, even give his life for him—but that he could not betray Christ. He then requested that he be crucified for being Christian. On hearing this, Ikoma fumed that he would kill Antonio with his own sword and leave his corpse to be chopped to pieces by his men. News of this death-sentence filled Antonio with joy, and he called his entire household to the jail—he had that privilege, for he was samurai—to beg forgiveness for any offence he may have given any of them.

       With nightfall, Ikoma’s men came to take Antonio to his death and led him out of prison with his hands bound tight behind him. When a friend of his complained to the guards that it was unbefitting a samurai to be so handled, Antonio assured them that all was good and well. “It suits me to go thus, sirs,” he said, “since I did not merit being crucified as I requested and desired—for my Lord Jesus Christ was bound.” He then went on to thank them profusely for the good they were doing him.

       As Ikoma’s men led Antonio down the dark road to the execution-ground with torches lit, he prayed aloud, preached Christ to his captors, and urged some Christians who were following along to go home before any harm should come to them. Reaching the execution-ground, he fell to his knees and recited the Confiteor aloud. Next he prayed some final prayers, called the names of Jesus and His Mother, and bent his head to receive the executioner’s sword. The slash did not come, however: instead, one of the executioners begged the stout Christian to reconsider, promising to make peace between Ikoma, the Daimyō, and Antonio, if only he would feign apostasy—just a simple word…

       “The law of the Christians is not one that suffers such deceptions and embellishments,” Antonio proclaimed, firmly planted on his knees and awaiting his glorious end. He then declared to his reluctant executioners that he could already see his eternal crown.

       Dazzled by that vision, Antonio implored all within earshot to study the Faith. Next, he turned to one man who had apostatized out of fear and urged him to repent. Finally, before bending his head to receive the fatal slash, he asked a friend to bury him as a Christian, and only then did he signal the swordsman. Thus, there on his knees on the soil of Takamatsu, that town perched at the edge of the shimmering Seto Inland Sea in the benighted province of Sanuki, Antonio Ishihara Magōemon baptized the island of Shikoku with his sacred lifeblood.

     Behold the Daimyō’s proclamation, inscribed on a placard put on public display along with the Martyr’s severed head:

      This man was killed by order of Sanuki-dono for being Christian against the law of the Tenka [i.e. the Shōgun] on the 14th day of the 6th month in the 3rd year of Genna [i.e. 16 July 1617].

      The third year of Genna, literally “original Japan”: an imperial-era name redolent of retrogression, of what Japan was meant to be—according, at least, to the Shogunal dynasty so cruelly committed to extirpating Christ. Yet Ikoma, the Daimyō, so intent on proving his fealty to the Shōgun by this gruesome display, had with his inscription conjured up an echo of Pontius Pilate’s own placard reading:

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

     An echo shimmering in every precious drop of that sacrificial Christian blood poured out as a testament of Christ among us, victorious in death.

  1.  Pedro Morejón, Historia y Relacion de lo sucedido en los Reinos de Japon y China, en la qual se continua la gran persecucion que ha avido en aq̃lla Iglesia, desde el año de 615. hasta el de 19. Por el Padre Pedro Morejon de la Compañia de Iesus, Procurador de la Prouincia de Iapon, natural de Medina del Campo. (Lisboa: Rodriguez, 1621)
  2. Webpage:  ここに立つ教会 at:     http://ch.febcjp.com/2017/10/10/resp171010_00/
  3. Webpage: 讃岐の殉教者 アントニオ石原孫右衛門親子 at: http://www.sakuramachi.catholic.ne.jp/martyrs/index.html?fbclid=IwAR0bUVIUhlLxhsP1hhrgnNzhzbUMOZj8RFdWWzxlIPJF3hy1hwTa0CDB88w


 Copyright 2019 by Luke O’Hara