Sermon preached at Evensong on the First Sunday of Lent (18 February 2018) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Canon Pastor
In the first of our Lent Sermon Series: Reel Spirituality, Canon Tricia Hillas explores faith in Martin Scorsese's film Silence.
You can listen to this sermon via SoundCloud, or read the text below.
‘My purpose is to make you see.’
A quote from film pioneer D.W Griffith or perhaps director Federico Fellini.
Edward N McNulty, who is passionate about film as visual parable, invites us to a theology of seeing and listening:
‘We believe that the God, who spoke to the patriarch Joseph through dreams, and to Moses through a burning bush, continues to speak in unexpected ways and places to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear’.
Ironic then that we begin this series of listening for God through the medium of cinema with Martin Scorsese’s film, ‘Silence’.
Described by critics as ‘shattering’, ‘searchingly tackling questions of faith and doubt and duty’, Silence is not an easy film to watch, shrouded in mist and rain, awash with images of pain and cruelty.
A friend asked why on earth did you pick this – why not La, La, Land? They have a point…
Scorsese’s film is based on Japanese author Endo Shusaku’s acclaimed novel set in the context of the introduction of Christianity to Japan in the 16th century.
Many became Christians. The Christian faith gained a measure of respectability, however within 50 years the authorities began to fear it was a weapon of European colonialism. Foreign priests were expelled; Japanese Christians forced to give up their faith or face torture and death.
Thousands died as martyrs. Others, the apostates, were forced to renounce their faith through spitting and treading upon a fumie, an image of Christ on the cross.
It was such a fumie, blackened with the footprints of hundreds of long-forgotten apostates, which caught the eye of Endo Shusaku as he visited a museum in Nagasaki. Questions formed: would he, too, have apostatized? History has long celebrated the triumph of martyrs, but what of the fallen, those doubly damned by the silence of God and history alike?
Martin Scorsese takes up such questions in unfolding Endo’s story of a fictional young Jesuit priest, Sebastião Rodrigues, and his priest companion Francisco Garupe, who arrive in Japan in 1639, at the height of the persecution.
These young idealists hope to care for the hidden Christians and to investigate reports they consider outrageous, that their revered mentor, Father Ferreira, has committed apostasy.
They find local believers driven underground. Those suspected of being Christians, forced to trample on the image of Christ. Those who refused, horrifically tortured and killed.
Scorsese spares us little as we follow the inward as well as outward journey of Rodrigues and Garupe, during which they become increasingly bedraggled. Prepared to accept martyrdom for themselves, anguish comes with the realisation that the authorities had learned the efficacy of forcing priests to witness the torture of local Christians. Rodrigues and Garupe are told that the only way to stop the brutality is through the renunciation of their own faith.
A crushing dilemma: is it heroic to suffer as a martyr or is it self-centered, if to recant will end another's suffering?
What is God’s will? And where is God in all this?
Through the repeated betrayal of their guide, through the oceanic crucifixion of believers who sing as they are drowned by successive tides, the burning of whole families and other brutalities – Rodrigues is tortured by God’s silence and its meaning. Is this divine silence divine absence?
One voice does relentlessly speak into the silence – it belongs to Inoue, the inquisitor whose persistent questions, batter Rodrigues’ faith.
Inoue confronts him with the idea that his piety is merely a form of vanity. Pointing to Rodrigues’ tortured flock:
‘The price for your glory is their suffering’.
Surely, he reasons, if Christ, sacrificed himself for humanity’s sake, Rodrigues ought to do likewise, even if that sacrifice is public blasphemy.
At the climactic moment, Rodrigues hears the moans of those who, with his encouragement have recanted, but who are still being tortured until he too tramples the image of Christ.
As Rodrigues looks upon the fumie, it seems that Christ finally breaks his silence:
"You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross."
Is this the sound of divine silence cracking? Will Rodrigues place his foot on the fumie, publicly renouncing his faith?
In the 123 years since the Lumiere brothers first filmed workers leaving their 19th Century factory cinema has helped to change the world. Film still entertains, educates and tells stories which need to be told.
Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ is ‘beautiful’. Adam Mars-Jones says: ‘the Japan it shows is beautiful and often indistinct, edges blurred by mist, smoke or steam, though there are moments of intimate candlelit clarity like something from a de La Tour painting.’ Or a Rembrandt I’d say, or better still, a Caravaggio with rich colours, dirty bedraggled saints, deep darkness and glimmers of light, of hope and of God’s grace.
'Silence' is also both absorbing and terrible, a meditation on faith and betrayal.
As a Lenten meditation it evokes the characters and the twists and turns of the passion narratives; we have a tempter and an authority figure holding life and death, an agonising choice whether to accept the proffered cup, there are denials and betrayals, words…and silence.
Leaving me pondering both human silence and the silence of God.
European Christianity readily honours those martyred for refusing to renounce their faith. Rarely do we dwell on those who succumb to the pressure to relinquish faith.
In Silence the priests’ guide Kichijiro vacillates between apostasy and confession, making him one of the film’s more provocative characters. It is he who betrays Rodrigues for 300 pieces of silver. We understand Kichijiro more when we discover that he is the sole survivor of a family of Christians ordered to stamp on an image of the face of Jesus.
‘They would not but I did’, he says, ‘They were burnt alive. I had abandoned God, I could not abandon them so I watched them die. Wherever I go I see the fire and smell their flesh.’
As one who can neither truly find God nor do without him, Kichijiro in his brokenness is perhaps more like us than we could care to believe.
Longing for God but fearful that he will always let God down, he asks a question: ‘My love for God is strong…could that be the same as faith?’
I hope so, I believe so…that in God’s kingdom there is a place for weakness and for forgiveness. That the church can glory in leaders who are redeemed Sauls’ and Peters’. That we are to be a community for all of us who find ourselves weighed down with our sins and inadequacy. A community so generous that even Judas could return to fellowship.
And what of the silence of God, which haunts the film?
The priest Rodrigues laments: ‘Surely God heard their prayers as they died… how can I explain his silence? Or am I just praying to nothing because you are not there?’
The possibility emerges that the God in which Rodrigues had believed – the attractive, heroic, pristine God had to die, indeed had never truly existed. For the face which speaks from the fumie is sunken, utterly exhausted; burdened with our transgressions; trampled by our sins.
Hope then that silence is not absence, but the enfolding presence of God who is not silent to suffering, but who fully enters into it with us.
Author Endo Shusaku said:
‘In Silence, I sought to portray, not the silence of God – but the way in which God speaks through man…I wanted to show that God, who appears superficially oblivious to human suffering, actually speaks through a medium other than words.’… ‘The image of Christ carved on the fumie in Silence is a maternal image, a woman seeking to suffer with her child and to share the child’s pain.’
Endo's novel, Scorsese’s film and the gospel narratives depict the paradox of strength emerging through weakness and whispers of love in Silence.
God give us eyes to see, ears to hear you, in and not despite the silence. Give us also courage to speak whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.