Non enim aetati nostrae dignum est, inquit, fingere : ut multi adolescentium, arbitrantes Eleazarum nonaginta annorum transisse ad vitam alienigenarum.
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.
The first readings at Mass each day this week are all from the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees. The full story told in those books (and in 3 & 4 Maccabees which are in the Orthodox Bible, but not the Catholic one) is heartbreaking and very painful to read through (we’ll get to that in a minute) however the passages in the daily lectionary are stirring, perhaps even to the point of political action!
The short version of the Maccabee story, highlighted by the Catholic lectionary and also by the popular story of Hanukah, is one of political oppression overthrown by faith. The kings who took over after the death of Alexander the Great divided up his empire and then fought over strategic bits here and there. In 174 BC, King Antiochus IV took the throne of the Seleucid Empire, stretching from Kabul to the Mediterranean. He eventually took the name “Epiphanes” meaning “God Manifest”. He came to the temple in Jerusalem and desecrated it, sacrificing pigs on the altar and ordering all the Jews to adopt the practices of Hellenic culture and idolatry. Some Jews said yes. Some Jews said no. Some fought back and some fought in favor of these new Gentile overlords. The lectionary would have us remember the stirring string of victories and the glorious example of religious martyrs dying rather than cave into Gentile customs. The story of Hanukah, as popularly shared, is one such victory, reclaiming the Temple and reconsecrating it after the Greeks and their pig blood. However, the story of Hanukah downplays the political victory, focusing on a rabbinic story of a miracle that’s not recorded in these texts. We’ll come to the True Story of the 4 Books of Maccabees in a few moments.
Recent news for Chick-Fil-A has not been very good. By all accounts, Popeye’s Fried Chicken has made a chicken sandwich that is better than CFA’s ever thought about being. I’ve not had it because I can’t get to a place selling it before it sells out. But everyone says it’s amazeballs. Even before Popeye’s though a worker leaked CFA’s “secret recipe”. I’ve made this recipe at home and at the monastery in Colorado and I’ve found it in restaurants in several cities. It’s the real thing: I know it because it 100% of the time tastes exactly like the Original. Then there’s the politics: as CFA has tried to go international, they have met with protests over the perceived political stance of the company. what served them well when they were a chain in the South has not been so useful in the North, the West, Canada, or Europe.
Something that has been interesting to me during this entire chicken-political discussion has been watching both left and right activists read Chick-fil-A exactly the same. Both left and right have assumed that Chick-fil-A’s political stance was honest and sincerely held by persons rather than a business proposition or a marketing choice. While the owner of a business has the right to make choices about how the business uses its money, a good businessman makes business decisions with business money. In America, on the left and on the right, we like to imagine that businesses are run by persons and human decisions rather than by businesses and managers. Thus, when a business makes an actual business decision there’s often disillusionment. CFA is no different. Instead of seeing a multinational fast-food chain, many people on the left and on the right wanted to see personal decisions made that they either agreed with or not. Both the left and the right wanted to imagine that CFA was some sort of Christian Business in the real, baptized, confessing sense, as if it sat in a pew on Sundays when it was closed. This despite the fact that like any business, there are P&L spreadsheets, stockholders, expense accounts, and taxes. While a human person may make donations to charity, a business makes tax choices: weighing the tax benefits of a charity with the positive or negative customer sentiment caused by the action. This is why most business owners I know make “progressive” charities their public choice, but quietly vote Republican. Progressive politics play well, but Republicans are pro-business.
Back to the Maccabees. Rabbi Eleazar is considered a saint and a martyr among the Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics, he is one of many Old Testament figures to hold a place on the Church Calendar. Most of them are prophets, but Eleazar is the only named Martyr. (There are 8 more with a feast but they do not have names: the seven brothers, students of Eleazar, and their mother.) In his homily on Tuesday, my pastor noted that the clear teaching of Eleazar’s story is there is literally no action we can take that does not affect someone else. Eleazar knew his actions would affect the young and so he refrained. Another priest, commenting on the sexual abuse scandal in the Church, noted that every sexual act involved two souls at the minimum with others coming along as needed. Eleazar reminds us that we never fall alone.
If Rabbi Eleazar were around today I think he might decide not to eat at Chick-fil-a. I think that would be the wrong answer because that would say that in the past Chick-fil-A had somehow been a Christian company. It would say that the left has been right all along and that “Christian Businesses” are a threat to them, somehow. It would also say that the only thing they need to do to get us to change is to apply economic pressures. If they apply them hard enough, in fact, we will begin to help them: by adding our economic weight to theirs. And now the left and the right agree again. CFA is neither fish nor fowl. They are not progressive enough yet for the left (who already is asking them to issue certain “statements”) but they are too progressive for many on the right, who are already protesting. Political Ploy is called divide and conquer. But that assumes that the Christian faithful are divided “us” against a business called Chick-fil-A, as if CFA were somehow Christian. That’s the myth that we are all fostering instead of realizing that it was a marketing choice that no longer works. Rabbi Eleazar would be wrong not because CFA is now unkosher, but because it has always been unkosher since a business is not a “Christian business”. CFA has always been making business decisions, not doctrinal ones.
The full story of the books of The Maccabees tell of a brief triumph followed by a series of political defeats. The defeats are caused by each of the Maccabee Brothers believing the political Promises of their enemies. As each successive wave of political failure overtakes the leaders of Israel, Rome gradually gains strength and moves in bit by bit until we are left with the Roman Empire running the show. What begins in 1 Maccabees ends in the Gospels as we watch the last king, Herod, being supplanted by the Roman governor, Pilate. It takes nearly 200 years, but all the Maccabees succeeded in doing was too weakened this part of the Seleucid Empire so that it would fall all the more easily to Rome.
We can easily understand why the readings this week of martyrdom and standing up for the true faith are so important to the Church. But we can lose sight of what the books of Maccabees are really about. What the Maccabees learn over and over is that it would have been safer to put their trust only in God rather than in politics and military might. Christians today would do well to heed this lesson as well. Psalm 146 says, “Put not your trust in princes or in any of the sons of men. For in the day his breath departs and he returns to the earth on that very day his plans perish.”
Eleazar was right: pretense leads to the fall of others. Our trust in politicians, in business leaders, in media superstars is nearly idolatry. The fall of each actually ruins our witness and our ability to be Christians in the world; just as each Maccabean failure resulted in a weaker Israel, leading finally to the Fall of Jerusalem in 73 AD. Each time we elevate a politician (with all of his faults) to super Christian stats, or each time we make a church out of businesses, we make it harder for real Christians and real Churches to do the hard work of the Gospel.