November 6, 2016
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: 2 Macc 7:1-2, 9-14
In 1945, in the violent afterglow of World War II, a million Russian troops came into Romania to back to the new communist government. Shortly after, at a national meeting of religious leaders broadcasted on the radio, many pastors came forward publicly to endorse the new atheistic regime. Yet, when it came time for a certain Lutheran pastor, Richard Wurmbrand, to address the meeting, his wife Sabina turned to him and said,
“Richard, stand up and wash away this shame from the face of Christ.”
He said, “If I do so, you’ll lose your husband.”
But she replied, “I don‘t wish to have a coward as a husband,”
So Wurmbrand stood up and exhorted his brother pastors and the whole nation via radio, to serve Christ alone, not to sacrifice their faith for their new communist masters. Within three years, he was arrested by the secret police and imprisoned. He suffered through two imprisonments, lasting 14 years in total, and underwent many tortures for the sake of Christ. His example, of bravely witnessing for Christ at great personal risk, is a model for us.
In this Sunday’s first reading from 2 Maccabees, the only reading from the Maccabean books in the Sunday Lectionary, we find a chillingly similar scene of religious persecution. Complex geopolitical forces underlie the Maccabean era, but the first chapter of 1 Maccabees does a good job summarizing the problem: The Greek overlords, who had been ruling the Holy Land for some time, decided to impose their religious and cultural customs on the Jews as a way of forcing them to assimilate and thus be pacified. They placed a pagan idol on the altar in the Temple, forbade circumcision under pain of death, and burned up Torah scrolls, while encouraging Jews to go to the Greek gymnasium now built in Jerusalem. While some of the Jews capitulated to the Greeks, others banded together under the family of Mattathias (whose sons are referred to as Maccabees, that is, “hammers”) to fight off the Greek persecutors. The chief persecutor is the emperor of the Greeks’ Seleucid empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
Trial of the Seven Brothers
He is the persecutor identified only as “the king” in our reading. Those standing for trial are seven Jewish brothers, along with their mother. Antiochus begins the trial with a loyalty test—the Jews are ordered to eat pork and thus violate the law of God (2 Macc 7:1; see Lev 11:7). Eating pork might seem a small thing, since its prohibition is by no means the heart of the covenant, yet the Greek persecutors are slyly seeking to break the Jews and to eat it would be tantamount to apostasy (see 2 Macc 6:18). It is interesting to note how familiar the Greeks are with Jewish religion, that they would choose this particular loyalty test. When the first brother asserts, “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers” (7:2 RSV), he is quickly maimed and fried to death. One after the other, from eldest to youngest, the brothers are questioned, tortured and killed. Each one of them speaks to the king defiant words, which reveal their loyalty to the true King.
Rising From the Dead
In our reading, we hear the words of the first four brothers, which focus on the eternal outcome of the events of that fateful day. The persecutor might think he is “winning” by eliminating his political opponents, but in fact, the martyrs tell him he is losing. The Lord will raise them up again to eternal life (7:9), but the king will enjoy no “resurrection to life” (7:14). The doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which we profess every Sunday, says that all people will be raised back to life at the end of time, some for salvation and some for judgment (see CCC 988-996). This teaching developed relatively late in the Old Testament era and is attested most strongly in Daniel (12:2) and here in 2 Maccabees. The hope of a martyr always lies in this reality—that beyond physical death is a much greater life, that hope is not extinguished by death.
Mom’s Manly Courage
Accompanying the seven brothers to a martyr’s death is their unnamed mother. While we don’t know the ages of the characters, we can guess that the mother was around forty years old and the youngest son would be ten or younger. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the whole Bible, she watches each of her seven sons suffer and die for the faith. Yet all along, she does not fail, but encourages her sons to endure. The author tells us that “filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage” (7:21). When the last and youngest son comes up for his turn, the king offers rewards, riches and political position to him if only he would forsake the Jewish law. He also beseeches the mother to save her son’s life and reason with him to eat a little pork and so live. In an awesome display of courage, she turns to her son, only a child, and tells him, “Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers” (7:29). Just like Richard Wurmbrand’s wife, her womanly integrity calls forth the most manly bravery in her son. (Notably, the mother of these martyrs is honored as a prefigurement of the Virgin Mary who encouraged her Son in his Good Friday sufferings.)
The seven sons are honored by the Church as the Holy Maccabean Martyrs, whose feast is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on August 1 and whose relics are enshrined in the St. Andrew’s in Cologne. Their story serves as a warning to us—that violent zeal for an ungodly way of life can sometimes turn the world against us. Yet it also serves as inspiration for us to live without fear and to rely instead on the mustard seed of faith. Some of us may be called to suffer or die for our faith. Some of us may be called to look on with “a man’s courage” while encouraging those who are suffering. It is important for us to remember that loyalty to Christ trumps loyalty to any earthly regime—a lesson that Richard Wurmbrand tried to instill in his church youth group before he left Romania. He took them to the lions’ pen at the Bucharest zoo and told them:
“Your forefathers in faith were thrown before such wild beasts for their faith. Know that you also will have to suffer. You will not be thrown before lions, but you will have to do with men who would be much worse than lions. Decide here and now if you wish to pledge allegiance to Christ.”
I don’t know if we should start holding youth group meetings at the zoo, but may we have the courage to not only make the pledge, but to stand firm in the day of trial!