Monday, August 1, 2011
August 1: Commemoration of the Holy Maccabees
These seven holy brothers suffered martyrdom under Antiochus in the second century before Christ.
The only knowledge I had of the Maccabees before I started reading for this post was from about 30 years ago. My best friend in high school was a Catholic girl. Her family was quite devout. On several occasions our conversations got around to differing religious beliefs and I remember one such conversation about the Bible. As was Protestant tradition in those times, my parents gifted me with a lovely, leather King James Version of the Bible around my 13th Christmas. As I was to discover in the next few years, it did not contain the same books as my best friend's Catholic Bible. This knowledge was the subject of a great debate, upon which my friend could not satisfactorily defend. Two of these "omitted" books from the Word of God were Maccabees I and Maccabees II. (I hope to write about the Bible at a later time.) After our discussion crossed a certain line, the topic was dropped and I was satisfied that the Catholics were, indeed, lost and confused. Even after I re-evaluated my beliefs and became a Catholic, I heard very little about the Maccabees other than their relation to the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. So when I discovered that today is the Commemoration of the Holy Maccabees I was very excited. It is a beautiful and amazing story of perseverance and faith in the One True God. It is certainly most relevant for our times.
330 years before Christ, Alexander the Great conquered and controlled much of that part of the world. His empire was massive. In his wisdom, he enlisted the service of many Greek soldiers to help fight his battles. As a result, the Greek influence and culture was spread throughout his empire. Before Alexander's death, he had made his way into Babylon and taken control of the Iranian people. He encouraged his soldiers to intermarry with the Babylonia woman further hastening the assimilation of Hellenistic culture into Iran. When Alexander died without an heir, his Greek infused empire was divided into 4 regions, with each of Alexander's generals becoming king. One of these kings was the general Seleucus who established his own empire beginning with Alexander's death in 323.
The Seleucid Empire included all of Babylon, Antioch, Damascus, and Jerusalem where, as we know from Scripture and history, a large portion of the population were Jews. During this time, the kings of the Empire were completely dedicated to immersion into the Greek culture left to them through Alexander. Many of the Kings tolerated the Jews because they didn't see Judaism in conflict with Greek culture. In fact, they had a certain appreciation for rituals and deity worship but they also hoped to influence the Jews to view their religious texts as literature or myth rather than as Truth. While some of the kings during this time were tolerant, others were cruel and attempted to eliminate all forms of Jewish religious practice altogether.
By the time of the reign of Antiochus IV in 215 B.C., many of the Jews had lost their faith and had assimilated into the Hellenistic culture. There were, however, a few Jews who had remained faithful to tradition and their faith. Antiochus was perfectly aware of the squabbles between the two factions of Jews and he hoped to use this as political leverage to unite his Empire. To do this, Antiochus instituted a series of laws prohibiting the Jews from keeping the commandments, reading the Torah, and practicing circumcision. During this time, the Jews were also forced to violate their dietary restrictions and to participate in pagan rituals. In a final act of humiliation and sacrilege, Antiochus stormed the temple in Jerusalem, ransacked it, destroyed the altar and built a statue that resembled Zeus. The punishment for violating any one of these prohibitions was often a cruel, torturous death. Many Jews did as Antiochus IV had anticipated and rejected God. They followed the laws of the land and assimilated. Faithful Jews hid themselves away in mountains and lived in fear.
In the year 166 before Our Lord was born, one such faithful Jew named Eleazar was brought to trial before Antiochus. Eleazar was 90 years old and had spent some time going through towns teaching the children and circumcising the male babies. For his refusal to abandon Mosaic Law, Eleazar was tortured and murdered in Jerusalem. When the teacher refused to submit to the King's decrees, he had some of his followers brought to trial also. A woman named Solomonia and her seven sons were forced to stand before the King to answer for their "crimes." One by one, they were questioned. Each refused to deny the True God and each was tortured and murdered. Their mother was forced to stand by and watch as each one of her sons' skin was flayed and their bodies' were dismembered. When her youngest son was brought forth, Antiochus urged Solomionia to convince him to renounce so he could be spared. Instead, she looked at her son and encouraged him to pronounce loudly and bravely his trust in the True God. After the death of her seven sons, Solomonia stood over their bodies and cried out to the Lord. With her arms raised to heaven, she collapsed over them in death. So bravely did the Seven Holy Martyrs stand against the pagan tyrant King Antiochus, that they inspired another Maccabee—Judas—to rise up against the cruel tyrant, restore Judaism to Jerusalem, and reclaim the temple.
The story of the Seven Holy Martyrs is an incredible story, especially for our times today. Nations which were once gloriously and triumphantly Catholic long ago lost all semblance of Christianity and proudly declare themselves "secular." Our own President has firmly declared that the United States is no longer a "Christian" nation. Pagan ideas, principles, practices, rituals, and symbols permeate our modern society. Many Christians, especially Catholics, do not even recognize them, much less know what they are or mean. Our culture has become eerily similar to the ancient Babylonian culture that the Maccabees lived in. No, we aren't forced to reject the Commandments of God; we do so willingly. No, we aren't forced to violate our dietary restrictions; we do so willingly. No, we aren't forced to worship in churches stripped of altars; we do willingly. No, we haven't been forced to embrace secularism and paganism; we have done so enthusiastically. Perhaps, though, there are some among us with the courage of these Seven Holy Martyrs.
Protestants are not familiar with the story of the Maccabees because it is not in their version of the Bible.
After Vatican II, Pope Paul VI suppressed this Feast day in 1969. Most modern Catholics are unfamiliar with this story as well.
Holy Maccabees, pray for us, that we have the courage to defend the Truth in these increasingly pagan times.
Holy Maccabees, pray for us, that a remnant emerges from the decay to restore Catholicism to the world.