The Maccabean Persecution

Thirty-Second Sunday of the Year. 2 Mc 7:1-2, 9-14; Ps 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15; 2 Thes 2:16-3:5; Lk 20:27-38

This week’s readings begin to look towards the end of the year and Advent, the coming of Christ. This may not be immediately apparent, however, especially from the First Reading. Today’s First Reading is the most famous instance of cruel martyrdom in the Old Testament: seven brothers and their mother are tortured and executed for refusing to break the Law of Moses. How then are these terrible events related to the coming of Christ?

One response to this question is based on the association of place and time. The place is Judea; the time is about six generations before the birth of the Messiah – about the middle of the second century before Christ. For many people, however, it must have seemed more like the end of the world than the first light of a new dawn. After centuries of wars, invasions and exile, the Jews were being persecuted for the first time specifically for their religion. At the time of the First Reading, Jerusalem has been razed, the Temple has been defiled, and the Jewish people are being coerced to break the Law of Moses, to break their covenant with God, by threats of torture and death. But who is persecuting the Jews? Although he is not named in the First Reading, the king was Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Judea was part of his empire, which had itself been part of the vast empire of Alexander the Great. So the people persecuting the Jews were, in fact, Greeks. This is curious because we normally think of Greek culture as representing the summit of intellectual and social achievement in the ancient world. The Greeks, for example, invented democracy and much mathematics, science and philosophy. Why, then, did the descendents of these enlightened people launch the first, terrible religious persecution of the Jews?

Historians have not, I think, ever given a satisfactory reason for this persecution, especially as it led to the ultimate demise of the persecutors themselves. The Jews rose in revolt, gaining a degree of liberation and starting a chain reaction of events that led to the collapse of the Greek empire. The subsequent re-dedication of the Temple is still commemorated today by the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the festival of light that usually falls during our season of Advent. From a Christian point of view, however, this persecution was a foreshadowing of the imminent coming of the Christ. These events can be interpreted as an attempt by the enemy, the devil, to either pervert, destroy or simply to vent his rage against the very people from whom Jesus Christ will be born. Furthermore, also from our point of view, this persecution can be seen as a prophecy of the persecution the Church has faced throughout her history. The suffering of the Maccabean martyrs in the First Reading prefigures the oppression of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, for example, when many Christians faced a similar choice between sacrificing to pagan idols or execution. Over twelve centuries later, many Catholics in England faced the same choice between their Faith and their lives in the persecution begun by King Henry VIII and his successors, events that led to the near destruction of the Church in England for over three centuries. Within living memory, such actions have greatly multiplied. The twentieth century produced more martyrs than all other centuries combined, and its many apparently diverse political movements seemed to strike out against two principal targets: the Jews as a people and the Christians for their faith. Indeed, what is widely considered to be the first genocide of the twentieth century was directed against the first Christian nation in history, the Armenians

It is not comfortable to recall such grim events, but what can we learn from them? First, as Christians they remind us, in the words of St. Paul, that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12). This is why, in today’s Second Reading, St. Paul prays for his brothers and sisters to “be delivered from perverse and wicked people” and prays for their endurance. On a large scale such persecution can be directed against entire nations but on a smaller scale against communities and individuals, in families and in workplaces. Such persecutions are painful, but knowing Scripture and the history of the Church we can at least be reassured that there is nothing exceptional when such things happen. Second, such persecutions help to remind us that here on earth we have no abiding city, no final place of rest. This does not mean, however, that we have no hope. On the contrary, the Maccabean martyrs died in the expectation of the Resurrection, a belief that Jesus explicitly confirms in today’s Gospel, “Those who are deemed worthy … to attain to the resurrection of the dead … can no longer die … they are the children of God.” Today’s Responsorial Psalm alludes to the same hope with the words, “In justice I shall behold your face; and on waking I shall be content in your presence.”

Following the example of the Maccabean martyrs and the great cloud of other witnesses through history, may the Lord grant us final perseverance as we await the coming of Christ and the glory of the Resurrection.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 11th November 2007

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