The Emperor Minh Mang, at whose behest St Andrew Dung-Lac was executed, ruled Vietnam in strict accordance with Confucian philosophy. Its stress on the importance of family and social harmony did not rely on a spiritual or supernatural worldview for its values. There was religion, of course, with temples, gods and offerings to be made to them; but it served to conform the divine powers and unseen forces to the needs and priorities of humans, rather than the other way round.
The activity of Catholic priests in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries told a rather different story. Here was word of a king whose Kingdom was not of this world, who had set about making the earth into a realisation of heaven, and who was not an unseeable mythical hero, but a man of flesh and blood, recognised as God among us because He banished the power of evil and injustice not by the imposition of power, but by His absolute self-sacrifice. His Cross was thus more powerful than any earthly lord, however much they might strive to establish order and harmony, because it unlocks unbounded love, and the vital preceding steps of unconditional forgiveness and the gift to trust in God. Here was a king not just to be revered, but to be loved. Here was a man who did not think He could rule heaven and manipulate it for earthly objectives: here was The Man who embodies heaven and changes the world to heavenward aims.
You can imagine St Andrew Dung Lac in 1839, and others like St Joseph Marchand, who went before him to martyrdom in 1835, St Pierre Borie likewise beheaded in 1838 and St Jean Charles Cornay in 1837: they were seen as subversives, unsettling the harmony of society and turning “proper religion” upside down. No wonder that Emperor Minh Mang called Christianity “the European Darkness”. Not for the first time were Christians seen as impious, and enemies of the plain light of the common good.
But the Lord has told us in the Gospel (Luke 21. 20-28) that you will only see the Son of Man coming in power and the great light of glory, out of a sun and a moon and stars that have been darkened by signs of agony in the world, menaces that fill people with fear, and misery and violence across every land. In other words, when we read the adversity in our times and our lives for meaning, we Christians are to look into them not for vindication, or revenge on the enemy, but for the working out of the purposes of God in the world, according to the pattern of His own life when He lived it in our own flesh. As we pray each year, Christ “went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified”. Thus the same Christ who walked in Galilee and gave Himself for our sakes in unreserved love and forgiveness, is the Christ who is active in the world now and who will come at the End of Time; there is no other Christ. And we know in our hearts that this is our life, too: no Cross, no Crown.
Yesterday at Westminster Cathedral, Aid to the Church in Need arranged Red Wednesday, when it was bathed, in common with many other Church buildings, in red light to recall the bloodshed of the martyrs. This is not for pity, or bitterness, or even for special Christian pleading, but to confess our trust in Christ and the innocent blood He poured out for us, when He went before us to perfect our faith. Present at the Mass was the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, whose community in Syria and Iraq alongside the Catholic, Orthodox and Assyrian Churches has borne the wood of the Cross to follow Christ as He foretold. But what is remarkable about the Christians of the Middle East and their bishops like Mor Ignatius Aphrem who encourage them is the faith, the confidence in God, and the joy that never ceases to shine through. It was Pope Tawadros of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who noted that when the possessed Islamic State murdered his migrant-worker flock on a Libyan beach, the young men simply said, “Lord, have mercy,” before they died. They knew that their Redeemer lives and that in their flesh they would stand and see God in His Presence, behold Him not a stranger. No words of revenge, no unforgiving curses, no bitter defiance. Just the appeal of sinners to have the grace to be forgiving, that we may likewise find forgiveness, and bring into the world slightly more love than there is at the moment.
This is the life of heaven: to be free not only of sin but of grudges and hate, free of belief in power that can strike down, freed up for the enduring, imperturbable, inexhaustible impetus of love.
To the world, this is obscure, mysterious, convoluted, twisting reality. How can the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch smile and profess his unshakable belief in the Resurrection of Christ and humanity in the flesh? How can he spout this when all around is death, and the worst abuse and destruction cries out for redress? How can he speak of forgiveness from such weakness? But this Christian darkness is just to us how things are in the light of the Light of the World.
“Let your light so shine before men,” He said, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Let your works be goodness, virtue, mercy, forgiveness, love and persevering trust in Christ and His promises, and the Son of Man’s glory will be seen in who YOU are, and HOW you are, and how you act. The Kingdom of Christ the Son of Man will be seen coming in power and great glory for now by no other means. Then the Light will shine in the world through you.
St Andrew Dung-Lac, pray for us.
Martyrs of Vietnam, pray for us.
Martyrs of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, pray for us.
Martyrs wherever Christ’s goodness and forgiveness are hated, pray for us.
And wherever darkness calls itself reality, wherever it withholds mercy and calls it justice, wherever it shrouds people so they cannot see their hope, as God the Word spoke first to our Creation: “Let there be Light.”