Editor’s note: The following homily delivered by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D, S.T.D., on 1 August 2017, commemoration of the Holy Maccabees (Extraordinary Form) at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
The liturgical calendar for today in the Extraordinary Form has us honor “the Holy Maccabees,” that is, the heroic Jews who withstood assaults on their holy faith from within and without. Permit me to offer several seemingly disparate but actually connected observations.
First, I have never understood why the post-conciliar reform of the Roman calendar (which needed to be done) eliminated all the Old Testament saints from observance. The Eastern Churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) have maintained those feasts. The move is particularly odd, given the strong effort emanating from the Council to build bridges between ourselves and our elder brethren in the faith, the Jews.
When Catholics hear about the Maccabees, we naturally think of the two books of the Old Testament which bear their name. Scholarly opinion dates the composition of those books to the century before Christ – in other words, veritable late-comers to the Bible. Indeed, although First Maccabees was probably composed in Hebrew, only a Greek translation comes down to us, while Second Maccabees, in all likelihood, was written directly in Greek. Thus these two books are not part of the Hebrew canon of Scripture and are dubbed “deutero-canonical” – meaning, “belonging to the second canon” of Scripture. An interesting historical point to note is that the Hebrew canon held sway only among Jews living in Palestine; on the other hand, the Septuagint (or Greek version, which is longer by seven books and some chapters of Hebrew books) constituted Sacred Scripture for Jews of the Diaspora (the vast majority of the Jews). It was the Greek text, of course, which was used by the sacred authors of the New Testament. Further, the longer canon is the one accepted by both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.
It is precisely the deutero-canonical books that Martin Luther and other would-be reformers rejected in the sixteenth century. You will recall that Luther staked his doctrinal claim on the mantra, “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone). When engaged in theological debates with Catholics, he insisted that they ground their positions in biblical texts. When the battle over Purgatory was waged, Catholic apologists zeroed in on the Second Book of Maccabees, wherein we meet soldiers who make an offering for sacrifices to be offered on behalf of their deceased colleagues. If prayer for the dead, then logically, also a place for the dead to be in an intermediate state. The two go hand-in-hand. Which pushed Luther over the edge into his rejection of the deutero-canonical books as true Scripture. Nor should we forget that some books of the New Testament were not spared Luther’s scalpel, either, most especially the Epistle of St. James, which clearly teaches the necessity of faith’s accompaniment by good works.
With some of the history in place, what sacred teaching can we glean from these two biblical volumes and the heroes they promote?
Although the First Book of Maccabees is firmly planted in an Old Testament ambience in terms of thoughts on the afterlife, the Second Book looks resolutely toward the New Testament. And so, we encounter individuals who stake their entire earthly life on the promise of eternal life, indeed, on resurrection of the body (and not just the continued existence of a disembodied soul). As already mentioned, prayers for the dead are viewed as pious and efficacious exercises, that is, believers ought to engage in the practice and the practice has effect with God. Likewise taught is the value of the intercession of the saints – another bugaboo for Luther!
Just who were the “Maccabees”? Actually, the Hebrew word means “hammer” and is first applied only to one of the family, namely, Judas Maccabeus, the third son of the priest Mattathias and leader of the revolt against the Seleucid kings who persecuted the Jews. Eventually, the epithet was accorded his supporters in the struggle.
What lessons can we learn from these “hammers,” noble warriors of faith, extolled in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews – that great hymn to faith and faithful believers?
First, we see how important it is to fight against assimilation into a pagan culture. Initially, the Jews of that time were subjected to a “soft” persecution, which offered them rewards for abandoning the traditions of their fathers (for example, circumcision and refusal to eat pork). When that didn’t work, “hard” persecution ensued. Don’t we find the same modus operandi today? How many would-be Catholic politicians have sold their Catholic souls for acceptability in a political party of death, which also promotes a vision of marriage inimical to both the natural law and divine revelation? How many Catholics work in offices and public service in this city yet are completely unknown as Catholics since their lifestyle blends in seamlessly with that of the secular culture (or anti-culture)? In effect, they are content to be crypto-Catholics, even though Our Lord commanded us: “What you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops” (Mt 10:27).
Second, while those Jews of old were being pushed to infidelity by the pagan society they inhabited, the greater temptation to infidelity came from within their own ranks – accommodationist Jews who saw nothing wrong with hiding the mark of their circumcision at the gymnasium or ingesting a small piece of pork for sociability. How many of us know Catholics, even clergy, who urge us to a more “moderate” approach to our life of faith? You know, lighten up a bit, don’t press the hot-button issues, stress the commonalities, avoid the distinctives. In fact, those “moderates” would consider a full-throated proclamation of the Gospel to be not only inadvisable but counter-productive. Indeed, they would hold that “Ninja Catholicism” is giving the Church a bad name.
Third, the Maccabees remind us of the centrality of religious liberty and the need for eternal vigilance in that regard. The Obama years brought us up short as believers had never encountered such full-blown attacks on religious institutions and religiously motivated people in American history. As Catholics, we responded wisely and strenuously to those attacks, demonstrating a willingness to defend and safeguard the “first freedom” with every fiber of our being, individually and collectively. And vindication was ours, all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. The current administration has demonstrated a strong commitment to advancing religious freedom as well as an appreciation for the place of religion in the public square. However, the Maccabees urge us to watchfulness at all times.
Fourth, these holy warriors stand out as defenders of the purity of worship and the sanctity of God’s House. As an aside, it is from this source that Jewish liturgy celebrates the feast of Hanukkah, the re-dedication of the Temple after its desecration by pagan rites.
How much do we need to reinforce those notions today when casual attire and behavior invade our sacred precincts, let alone liturgical abuses of every kind, offensive to God and destructive of faith in thousands upon thousands of believers! Theology holds: Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief). What we do in the sanctuary is not a matter of indifference. God does care and has told us so in innumerable passages of Holy Writ. In an ongoing debate on the nature of true worship, Cardinal Newman was presented with the final flourish from his Protestant interlocutor: “Well, Dr. Newman, I suppose we shall have to agree to disagree. You shall worship God in your way, and I in mine.” To which, Blessed John Henry replied: “No, reverend sir, you can surely worship God in your way; I, however, shall worship Him in His way!” Simply put, if we can’t get the Sacred Liturgy right, we can’t get anything else right. After all, the primary reason for the existence of the Church is to offer fitting adoration to the Triune God – a point constantly underscored by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict and now, with renewed zeal, by Cardinal Sarah.
Finally, we must notice that the Maccabees were able to remain faithful because of the encouragement of two elders of the Chosen People – counter-influences to the accommodationists in their midst. A mother of seven sons not only was forced to watch their martyrdom; she actively encouraged them to be faithful unto death. Old Eleazar had pork shoved into his mouth, which he spat out immediately. His pagan persecutors – long-time friends of his – offered him a way out: We’ll give you some meat other than pork, which only you will know. Everyone will think you’re eating pork but you won’t be doing so and thus will not violate your God’s law. Eleazar laughed that suggestion to scorn, giving both a practical and theological rationale: A ninety-year-old man should live a bit longer – for what? Rather, lead astray the young men of our community by letting them think I was willing to flaunt the divine law? No way. How unlike the Jesuit missionary in the film Silence who actually encourages Japanese Catholics to commit sacrilege to save their lives.
Pope Francis regularly encourages young people to have recourse to the wisdom of their grandparents. I must say I am always confused by that counsel because, at least in my experience, it is precisely that generation (for the most part) that has sold out to the prevailing ethos. I will never forget an 85-five-year-old woman’s confession I heard as a very young priest. She confessed adultery. As the confession unfolded, she said she had thrown aside 60-plus years of marital fidelity because listening to her grand-daughter’s sexploits made her jealous and desirous of knowing what she had missed out on. Imagine: instead of spurring her grand-daughter on to chastity, she was motivated to commit adultery.
Christ informs us that those who lead others into sin would be better off with a millstone tied to their necks as they are cast into the sea (cf. Mt 18:6). Conversely, He tells us that those who observe even the least of the commandments and teach others to do likewise shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt 5:19).
Today, then, we thank Almighty God for the noble witness of the Maccabees and pray that their tribe might increase among us in our day.
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