This week in the first readings at Mass, we have been hearing the story of the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes. If you haven’t had the chance to hear the readings at Mass, it is worth reading them for a good overview of this important event in the history of the Jewish people.
The first and second books of Maccabees is the story of the persecution against the Jews in the second century before Christ and the subsequent uprising led by Mattathias and his sons. The stage was set in Monday’s reading when some of the Jews began to live like those around them in order to ingratiate themselves with the Gentiles. Perhaps the capitulation seemed small, but we soon see the result of yielding in small matters. As 2 Maccabees 4:17 overtly reminds us, “It is no light matter to flout the laws of God, as subsequent events will show.” King Antiochus took advantage of the moral weakening of the Jews and struck at their heart: the Temple. While they were giving up what seem to be small things and attempting to become more like their Gentile neighbors, he swooped in with his army, subjugated the people, and desecrated the Temple.
Under the guise of establishing unity in his kingdom, the king outlawed Jewish customs. Circumcision, observing the Sabbath, and studying the Torah became punishable by death. On Tuesday, we heard the story from the sixth chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees, when a revered elderly Jewish man, Eleazar, went to his death rather than disobey the kosher laws. On Wednesday, we had the beautiful story of the mother and her seven sons, who also faced death because of their refusal to eat pork.
Kosher laws, circumcision, and observing the Sabbath—perhaps these don’t seem like a big deal in the great scheme of things. But when the Jews capitulated on the “little things” for the sake of unity, the loss of the Temple soon followed. Why? Because they were giving up more than “little things.” Those things were outward manifestations of something interior. They were outward signs of their identity as the chosen people of God.
Eleazar was even given a way out. Friends offered him kosher meat that he could eat while pretending he was eating pork. But he refused to give scandal to the youth, who would think that he had disobeyed God:
“At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense;
many young people would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar
had gone over to an alien religion.
Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life,
they would be led astray by me,
while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age.
Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men,
I shall never, whether alive or dead,
escape the hands of the Almighty.
Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now,
I will prove myself worthy of my old age,
and I will leave to the young a noble example
of how to die willingly and generously
for the revered and holy laws.”
Why would Eleazar not disobey the kosher laws? Because this is about more than pork. Obedience to these laws was fidelity to their identity as Jews. It was recognition of allegiance to something—Someone—greater than this life.
How often are we quick to give up anything that sets us apart or makes us different? How often do we mask our Catholic beliefs for fear of being judged or looking weird? When the disobedient Jews began the downward spiral by giving into Gentile customs for the sake of fitting in, I thought of that poignant scene in A Man for All Seasons, when the Duke of Norfolk attempts to persuade Thomas More to sign the Succession to the Crown Act—not because he agrees with the Henry’s marriage, but because of the others who have also signed the Act. The Duke says, “Thomas, look at those names. … You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” Thomas More replies, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
The deaths of Eleazar, the mother and her seven sons, and Thomas More would probably be chalked up by our modern society as avoidable and pointless. Isn’t life worth more than a small stand against eating pork or a simple oath about a marriage and heirs? But some things are worth dying for; some stands are worth making.
The story of the Maccabees doesn’t end in tragedy. The persecution by Antiochus rallied the Jews faithful to the covenant and a band rose up to throw off the oppression. Today, the first reading recalls the victory of the faithful Jews and the re-dedication of the Temple on the 25th day of Chislev, an event now remembered by the celebration of Hanukkah.
The desecration of the Temple and the persecution that followed, while a tragedy and evil in themselves, reminded the people of their identity. It shook them of their complacency. The story of the Maccabees should call us to examine our own lives. Where have I given in where I should have made a stand? Have I rationalized disobedience to God or the Church because I was afraid of being set apart? Am I willing to defend the Church in the face of Her critics? Do I recognize that my identity as a child of God is worth more than my life?
We can also view the story in terms of our moral lives. When the Jewish people capitulated in small matters, they eventually weakened to the point of losing the Temple, the holiest place on earth. It is the same way with our own lives and sin. Venial sins seem small and unimportant, but the more we give in to them, the easier sin becomes. Habitual sin opens the door to grave sin. Yet like with the Maccabees, sin doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Our falls can shake us from our complacency and remind us of our identity. Spurred to repentance, we can follow the example of Matthias and his sons and fight against the evils that assault us.
May Eleazar, the Maccabean mother and her seven sons pray for us, that we too may have the courage to leave behind complacency and embrace our identity as children of God, regardless of what that will require of us.