We, the Church, are the Maccabees of the 21st Century

This text was preached by Fr. Edward Looney on November 6, 2016.  To listen to the audio version of the homily, visit this link.

We heard a startling account in our first reading today from the Second Book of Maccabees.  To better understand it, we need to place it in its proper context. The Old Testament contains two books of Maccabees which captures the persecution of the Jewish people.  The first book of Maccabees recounts the destruction of the temple and the building of altars to pagan Gods.  The feast of Hanukkah, celebrated by our Jewish brothers and sisters, recalls the Maccabean revolt and the re-dedication of the Jewish temple.

In our first reading we hear about the continued persecution of the Jewish people.  This time the king attempts to force the Jews to eat pork, which went against their dietary laws.  A ruler wanted to force people of faith to violate their consciences and go against the very things they believe.  Instead of bowing down to the ruler, the Maccabees chose to die, witnessing to their beliefs, rather than to compromise.

As we hear this account, we might quickly dismiss it, after all it occurred in the 100s BC.  The reality is there are Maccabees among us in the twenty-first century.  I’d like to suggest our Catholic Church are the Maccabees of the 21st century.  Our Church holds beliefs that contradict the belief system of modern society.  We believe all life is sacred from conception to natural death.  Since 1973 abortion has been the law of the land.  Several countries in Europe allow for physician assisted suicide, and the number of states allowing such practices continues to rise in America.  We believe marriage is between one man and one woman, but last year’s Obergefell decision legalized same sex marriages.  Members of the Church have been like the Maccabees, willing to take a stand with our contradictory beliefs, and give up everything, rather than violate their consciences.  Here are two modern day examples:

  1. The Little Sisters of the Poor are a religious congregation of sisters who work with the poor, providing a unique service to the elderly. They run 27 nursing homes throughout the United States, providing health care and compassion to people of low income.  Unfortunately, the Health and Human Service mandate, issued in 2012, threatened religious liberty, forcing them and other Catholic institutions to pay for healthcare which violated their morals—including coverage for abortion and contraception.  These humble sisters and servants of the Lord fought their case to the Supreme Court in order to follow their consciences.  They stood up to those who threatened them, and were willing to close their nursing homes, rather than to do something that violated their conscience.  They were willing to become the Maccabees of the 21st Century.
  2. Catholic Charities provides services charitable outreach throughout the United States to those in need. Additionally, Catholic Charities is well known for its adoption services.  Unfortunately, many Catholic Charities had to cease offering their services, because they chose not to violate their conscience. What was the issue?  Given the Catholic Church’s teachings on traditional marriage, Catholic Charities refused to place children with parents of same-sex couples, thus one by one Catholic Charities throughout the United States began to end their adoptive services.  Boston, San Francisco, Illinois, and elsewhere ended years of this great service to the larger community.  As Bishop Papropocki of Springfield, Illinois said, in the name of tolerance, the Church was not tolerated.  Instead of violating their conscience, the Church chose to end its adoptive services, becoming the Maccabees of the 21st century.

The reality is that it’s not only the Church being forced to violate its conscience but her very members too.  A private bakery refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage and is consequently fined and forced to close.  A pharmacist refusing to dispense contraception or a doctor refusing to perform an abortion loses their job, despite the fact their conscience does not allow them to perform such services.  In the name of faith, morality, and conscience, people stand up to make a public statement against the beliefs of contemporary society, becoming the Maccabees of the 21st century.

I do not want to leave us in utter despair with the climate of church-state relations.  There is hope, and that hope is also contained in our readings today.  St. Paul tells us that the Lord is faithful and will strengthen us and guard us from the evil one.  If we remain faithful to Jesus in our words and actions, the Lord will remain faithful to us.  Further, St. Paul says, Jesus is our encouragement and we can be strengthened through every good deed and word.  Jesus encourages the Church in her task of evangelization and outreach to the poor and marginalized.  Not only does the Church’s conscience says what it cannot do, but it is also the conscience which says what she must do.

The Church is strengthened by her good deeds as she provides services to society at large.  The Catholic Church runs homeless shelters, providing a roof for those, who like Jesus, have no place to lay their head.  We provide food and drink to the thirsty by our many food pantries.  Our parish right now is undertaking our annual collection drive for the warming shelter.  Our faith-formation youth are providing granola bars and juice boxes, while the adults are providing hats, mittens, and hand warmers.  This is the Church’s conscience at work, that no person should suffer the cold in the elements or go to bed hungry.  The Church educates youth through our Catholic school systems, elementary, secondary, undergraduate and undergraduate levels.  We care for the sick through our Catholic hospital systems.  These are the good deeds of our Church.  Society needs the Church, principally because we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and the solution to all our problems, but secondly, because of the way in which we serve our community in a humanitarian way.

The Church receives encouragement by those who have gone before her, witnessing what it means to stand up for truth when a gospel of convenience and tolerance is preached by society. The story of the Maccabees today encourages us to stand up for what we believe in.  It is easy to do so when we face no challenges to truth.  But when our beliefs are consistently challenged, will we stand up?  One of the Maccabees said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him.”  He echoes St. Paul, if I remain faithful to the Lord, He will remain faithful to me.

If you were a Maccabean, and your beliefs were being challenged, and you were asked to violate your conscience, what would you do?  Would you eat the pork?  Or die for your belief?  In a Christian context, do you deny Jesus, or die professing his name?  One day we might be faced with such a difficult decision, it has happened in our Church’s history, so we must prepare ourselves now.  Do you accept what has been handed on to you through the Church or do you follow the false god and new religion of society.   For me, I stand with the saints who died for their faith.  I stand with a Church with a 2,000-year history.  And for her, I would be willing to die as a Maccabean of the 21st Century.

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Fr. Edward Looney is a priest in the Diocese of Green Bay, a Marian theologian, author, columnist, media personality, podcaster, film enthusiast, and fellow pilgrim. He is the host of the podcast, Hey Everybody! It’s Fr. Edward. You can follow him on social media at the handle @FrEdwardLooney.

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