Like Hanukkah in November

The Readings for the 31st Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Parati sumus mori, magis quam patrias Dei leges praevaricari.
We are ready to die rather than to transgress the laws of God, received from our fathers.

JMJ

Here are sons of whom a Mother can be rightfully proud! The Story of the Seven Maccabee Brothers is a wee bit of a misnomer: they are 7 Brothers whose tale is told in the book of 2nd Machabees, as it is called in the Vulgate. Readings from 1st and 2nd Maccabees have also been coming up in the Daily Office. So it’s like Hanukkah coming early in a way. This story is one of particular meaning to me. The Greeks, having set up idols in the Temple are now going around Israel inviting the townspeople to worship idols and eat pork. These seven brothers, along with their mother and their teacher all refuse and are killed. It’s the last in a line of stories about the barbarism the Greeks committed against the Jews. The last line of Chapter 7 is “Enough has been said about the sacrificial meals and the excessive cruelties.”

Pardon a slide into Bible Geekery: these 1st and 2nd Maccabees are in the Catholic Canon, linking the historical period just before Jesus (c. 160 BC) with the Gospels. There are actually 4 books of Maccabees in the Orthodox Bible, but only 2 in the Roman Catholic Bible. The Wiki says that the Moravian Brethren rather liked 3rd Maccabees and 4th Maccabees was printed in some Romanian Catholic Bibles in the 18th Century. There’s an interesting discussion about why these books are not in the Jewish Canon here.

What do these martyrs (indeed, the entire story of the Maccabees) teach us as Christians?

In the first 3 centuries of the Christian Era, the Church endured serious persecution and at the same time, found ways to care for the poor, to house widows and orphans, to take exposed babies off the street and raise them in their own houses. The Church grew despite imprisonment, death threats, laws passed, and murderous rampages. Certain writers said that the church was growing because of the martyrdom. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” said Tertullian. The Church had inherited these books from the Jewish tradition and read them the same way: stirring stories inspiring her children to give up their lives rather than “transgress the laws of God, received from our fathers.”

For the early Church poverty was the norm. For this Church, powerlessness was also the norm. Although there were slaves and patricians all in the same Church communities they were all under a ban from the government. They were strange at least, ostracized often, hunted down sometimes and killed. The Church was not tax-exempt, the Church did not own huge swaths of property or giant buildings, and the Church was not given to splashy quasi-militarisic shows of liturgical triumphalism. This is not the case today, especially in America and Europe: the Church is largely white, middle class, and wealthy. When the Church thinks of people of color at all it tends to be in a rather colonial, paternalistic manner. This is even true of American Catholics for whom, in a real way, the Spanish, Latin American Church is our origin. We reject the poor on a regular basis: we hide from the differently-colored incursions in “our churches” even when those churches are dying. We take refuge in the fact that “this culture was ours at one time” and we think to reclaim it in the future.

For the early Christians the 7 Maccabee brothers were a sign that when the whole world was literally out to kill you still, God is in control. We think we’re being persecuted when we’re asked to yield cultural space to others. We confuse evangelism with expanding “Democracy” and Wal*Marts. We want to be in control and we will fight to keep that power. When so many American Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on economics, sex, and political morality, perhaps today these seven are not a useful sign. Their willing martyrdom seems meaningless to us.

Let us pray for a day when that meaning returns.

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