12/29/2007, 00.00
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From desert to oasis: the miracle of Christmas in Japan

by Pino Cazzaniga
In the land of the Rising Sun, signed by secularism and commercialism, misery and suicide, Christianity offers “a trustworthy hope” of which the pope speaks in his encyclical. The tale of Christmas Eve from our correspondent, and PIME missionary.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – The feast of Christmas is the best mirror to reflect the reality of Christianity in this nation.  Virtually none of the 122 million Japanese ignore that fact that kurisumasu (from Christmas) is the principle holiday of December even if few know of its origins.

In order to understand how it is celebrated, we must divide Japan into two areas: the desert and the oasis.  The desert is the image of all of Japan, its territories and people; the oasis its Christians Churched.  Many of these oasis risk being overtaken by the desert sands, others instead are centres and sources of hope and attraction for the evangelisation of these people.

The different destinies of these “oasis” are partly determined by the diversity of their cultural environment.  The enormous social development of the 1960’s gave birth to two cultures: the provincial culture embedded in tradition and the metropolis open to the future and the influence of globalisation.  The attractive oases, above all during the Christmas season are found within the cities.  It is under this prospective that I now describe the celebration of Japanese kurisumasu based on experience and some interviews.

There are three ways to celebrate Christmas in Japan: the secularised way which is widespread; in Christian communities but virtually without the presence of non baptised; or in the grand Churches which during the night of the 24th welcome numerous non baptised who are spiritually moved to attend ceremonies.

Secularised Christmas is well known and broadly celebrated.  There are three Japanese words that characterise it: illumination, Santa, presents. A Christmas feast that has its roots in New York, not Bethlehem.

In the post war period American occupying forces used Christmas as an occasion to carry out acts of charity towards war orphans and poor.  With the economic boom of the ‘60’s the feast of kurisumasu has increate in popularity also thanks to the ability of businesses that are quick to exploit easy earnings.

Despite this even this form of secularised celebration, propagated by the West, is not without noble sentiment.  An inquiry carried out by Kirin Holdings, a well known drinks group, reveals that 70% of the 5,800 adults interviewed associate Christmas with the sentiment of familial happiness. And it is within the intimacy of the family setting that most Japanese spend their Christmas Eve.

Christmas celebrated by the Christian Churches is of such intensity that it even reawakens hope in a missionary heart.  Even in the desert of the tragically secularised Japan faith produces oasis of life.  I participated in the Christmas vigil celebration of Fuchu parish (Tokyo) led by Fr. Alberto Di Bello, PIME.  In that brief journey from station to Church, I experienced what it means to pass from the desert to the oasis.  In the usually crowded station hall, there were few people about, among them the homeless, living icons of desperation.

Instead the Church was pace with faithful: together they were an expression of deep joy.  Observing that community I realised that, as Benedict XVI writes, Christian hope is not simply a psychological attitude, but a reality which has the power to transform hearts.  A 35 year old Catechumen, who had had a harsh life cried throughout her baptism.

A party followed the midnight Mass, an agape where contemplative silence cedes its place to friendly conversation.  The Christmas community also has the duty to be an example o fan alternative society, some theologians say.  That is exactly how the community of Fuchu parish seemed to me that night.  And that was because its members, through the Christmas mass were gifted with a sense of joy the lack of which was the source of the desperation of those three homeless people I had seen earlier, and of the 30.000 suicides that are committed each year in a country that is the second most powerful economy in the world.

But the church that is an example of a flowering oasis lies 25 kilometres from Fuchu, almost within the heart of the capital- It is the Church of St. Ignatius, run by the Jesuit fathers.  For six months now the parish priest is a 70 Italian Fr. Domenico Vitali, who has spent the last 43 years in Japan.  He entered the Jesuits after having read the biography of his compatriot: Fr. Matteo Ricci.

I knew that the Church of St. Ignatius is more or less the heart of Catholicism in Tokyo, but after meeting with Vitali I came to learn details that positively shocked me.

The Yotsuya quarter, where the Church lies, isn’t a residential area, but an office district.  Even on working days, besides the morning masses there is midday mass and an evening mass at 6 pm: both are assiduously attended by employees from the local offices.

On the afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve, 6 masses are celebrating din order to cope with attendance.

 “This year, Vitali told me; over 10.500 people took part in the celebrations: three quarters of them weren’t even Christians”.  What lies behind this non-Christian affluence? Curiosity? No… All of those people were willing to withstand hours of queuing in the cold because they felt, instinctively, that Christmas is celebrated in the Church and not in restaurants or hotels.

St. Ignatius Church is joined to the Jesuit run Sofia University; but pastorally both are independent.  Six Jesuit priests collaborate with Vitali and an elderly brother who is both “sacristan” and “prison chaplain”.

This abundance of zeal combined with their ease in modern communication techniques, makes t Ignatius the heart of the evangelisation mission in the capital, an oasis in the spiritual desert that is Tokyo, where, to use an expression from “Spe Salvi”, this “trustworthy hope” is gifted thanks to which the Japanese too “can face their present”.


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