24. The Cathedral

March 23, 2021Roger W. Lowther

Japan is no stranger to devastated cities. As I traveled giving concerts through city after city ravaged by the 2011 tsunami in Japan, my thoughts eventually turned to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No other city in the history of the world quite compares with their destruction.

They are the very first “ground zero.” In one brief flash of light and fire, every living thing vaporized into thin air. Those further away who survived the initial explosion continued to be torn apart at the cellular level by radiation that perpetually shot through their bodies.

But the story of devastation in Nagasaki begins hundreds of years earlier. In 1597, twenty-six Christians were marched 600 miles through the snow, from the political center of Kyoto to the economic center of Nagasaki. They climbed a hill each to their own wooden cross, where the men and boys were bound and stabbed through the heart with spears. Every ship entering the harbor for months afterwards saw those bodies and understood their message. “Christianity is not welcome here.”

Christians fled north to the village of Urakami and beyond, where they hid their faith for the next 250 years. They became the kakure kirishitan, the “hidden” Christians, forced to participate in humiliating fumie interrogations, where they tread on images of Jesus and Mary.

In 1865, Japan opened back up to the world. After the hidden Christians introduced themselves to new missionaries, the persecution started all over again. Thousands were imprisoned, and hundreds died. Responding to outrage from around the world, Japan at last gave official permission for religious freedom, a policy it still holds to this day.

In 1895, Urakami Cathedral began construction. It was the largest and most spectacular cathedral in all of Asia. Here, finally, God could be openly worshipped in Japan and no longer hidden. The cathedral was a clear symbol of the presence of God with his people. The Christians built where the humiliating fumie interrogations took place for hundreds of years, and near the hill where the twenty-six martyrs hung. The building was named St. Mary’s Cathedral, after the one who witnessed the suffering and death of her own son, the Mater Dolorosa, or the Mother of Sorrows.

On August 9, 1945, not twenty years after the cathedral was completed, an atomic bomb detonated directly above the roof. Of all the places! How is it that God would allow the destruction of this symbol of his presence, a place where people could finally gather and openly worship him? Why would he allow the Christians of Nagasaki to be stomped on like this, like the fumie persecution of so many years before?

The bomb detonated at 11:02 a.m. during a mass as the Feast Day of St. Mary approached. More people than usual gathered. A girls’ choir sang the Psalms when the shockwave hit. No bodies were ever found.

Of course, the target was not the cathedral. The bomb was meant for somewhere else, a chemical weapons plant further north in the city of Kokura. But when the plane got there, thick cloud covering prevented a visual of the site and the bomb couldn’t be dropped.

The plane flew on to the secondary target, the city of Nagasaki, a powerful harbor with weapons and steel manufacturing. Here, too, the clouds hid the ground. The plane, running desperately short on fuel, had little time. Later they would practically crash-land in Okinawa with only five minutes of fuel left in the tanks.

After two bombing runs and no visual target, and no ability to drop the bomb, the clouds suddenly . . . miraculously . . . parted. The hole opened just large enough to make out a racetrack next to a river that ran through the middle of town. Without hesitation, they dropped the payload and flew to a safe distance. But as the bomb fell, it moved a bit until it was directly over the Cathedral of St. Mary. This poor church, the Christian center of Nagasaki, and in some ways all of Japan, sat like a bullseye for the most powerful weapon ever made.

In an amazing coincidence, the Emperor of Japan officially ended the war on August 15, the Feast Day of the Assumption of St. Mary—Mary, the Mother of Sorrows, the very person to whom the cathedral was dedicated!

In the inferno of the bomb, practically every piece of wood turned to ash except one: a wooden statue of Mary. This statue became known as the hibakusha Mary, the A-bombed Mary, a survivor of the bomb. The paint of her face boiled away, transfiguring her into a ghostly pale white. Both glass eyes melted completely away. Her right cheek was smitten and scarred black by the flames.

When I visited Nagasaki and stood staring at Mary’s statue, I don’t know what I felt. The site seemed too precious or holy to take a picture. I thought about the Christians who hung on crosses not far from there. I thought about the fumie images of Jesus and Mary that had been tread on for centuries, and I thought about the flash and the wind and the flame. So much sorrow in such a small area!

I wanted to speak with someone and process what I felt, but at the time, there was only one other person in the church, an older woman selling postcards, with absolutely no expression on her face. However, when I looked in her direction, I thought I saw her nod slightly as if to say, “I know. I know.”

In Japan, there is a saying. Ikari no Hiroshima. Inori no Nagasaki. “Hiroshima rages. Nagasaki prays.” While the people of Hiroshima turned to protesting nuclear weapons around the world, the people of Nagasaki turned to prayer. This image of Nagasaki as a praying city was especially reinforced by the writings of Takashi Nagai.

Nagai was a Christian doctor who self-sacrificially set up a small hut just outside the cathedral soon after the explosion. He helped a lot of people, but then he eventually passed away only a few year later from lethal doses of radiation. In his book The Bells of Nagasaki, he wrote that the city, and particularly the cathedral, was a kind of sacrificial lamb which not only ended the war but continued to prevent another nuclear explosion. He believed everything was under God’s sovereign guidance and control, working all things for good, and he believed the trauma of Nagasaki was part of that plan. His prayer was for Nagasaki to always be a symbol of peace. He wrote,

The atomic bomb falling on Nagasaki was a great act of Divine Providence. It was a grace from God. Nagasaki must give thanks to God.

In so many ways, these words and images point me to Jesus, the lamb sacrificed for the healing and peace of the world. Jesus withstood the ultimate consuming fire of God’s wrath, the inferno of hell itself. He was smitten on the cheek by guards and blinded by blood streaming into his eyes from a crown of thorns. He was buried in the rubble of our sin, and then rose again, scarred, from the ashes. Christ on the cross is the true and ultimate ground zero of all of humanity’s war and hate.

We considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4–5)

“Jesus withstood the ultimate

consuming fire of God’s wrath,

the inferno of hell itself.”

Part of the bell tower from the church remains in the very place where it fell on that tragic day. The bell itself now sits in a glass case, ready to ring out once again in the new heavens and new earth. As the Apostle Peter wrote,

That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:12–13)

In the destruction of everything by fire, Peter points to the promise that all scars and brokenness will be filled with meaning, purpose, hope, and beauty. One day, we will enter a city that can never be destroyed by fire. As we wait for this perfect renewal and restoration, through our little acts of rebuilding, we experience the work of redemption God has already begun.

The people of St. Mary’s decided to rebuild their cathedral and not leave it as a ruined memorial, like so many urged them to do. Today, you can walk up their stairs, and enter their sanctuary, and marvel at their high vaulted ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. When you do, take note of the red glass that fills the sanctuary with a warm glow. They represent the tsubaki plant, common around Nagasaki. In 1597, just as the twenty-six were martyred and their blood spilled on the ground, these ruby red flowers began to bloom all over the hillside.

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and the beauty of the church is built on the sacrifice of Christ and those who follow him.

On a cold day in February in 1597, the Japanese Christian Paul Miki spoke his final words from the cross. He urged everyone to look to the sacrifice of Christ as the answer to the tragedy in Nagasaki. He assured them of hope in suffering and the end of all destruction, through the words and power of Christ. Miki said,

All of you here, please listen to me. . . . I have committed no crime, but have only been teaching the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. For this, I am being put to death. I am happy to die for such a reason, and see my death as a great blessing from God. In these last few moments, when you can rest assured I will not try to deceive you, I want to affirm and make clear, “for the salvation of man, there is no way other way than the Christian way.”

Just as Christians teach the “forgiveness of your enemies and those who wrong you,” I forgive Taiko-sama and all those involved with sentencing me to death. I have no hatred for Taiko-sama. Instead, it is my greatest longing and hope that he too and all Japanese people would become followers of Christ.

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