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Lessons from the Maccabees

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

The first reading for this Sunday is taken from chapter 7 in the second book of Maccabees. It narrates the story of seven brothers who were tortured and martyred in the presence of their mother on account of their fidelity to the covenant with the Lord. It is a very moving narration that culminates in the martyrdom of the mother.

Both books of Maccabees are part of a subset of Scripture designated as Deuterocanonical. In the books of Maccabees, the issue of the resurrection of the dead is explicitly addressed. Even though our Jewish brothers and sisters do not include them among the books of the Bible, it is interesting to note that the feast of Hanukah which they celebrate around Christmas time refers to events that are narrated in them.

The passage read in the first reading is only a fragment of the story of these brothers. I would like to extend an invitation to you to read it in its entirety. The example of the brothers and the mother is very edifying and worth considering always and everywhere. Of course, there are similar examples elsewhere in Sacred Scripture. For example, Susanna in chapter 13 of the book of the prophet Daniel, which is another passage of the Bible that is part of the Deuterocanonical books. In the face of the extorsion of crooked and corrupt judges, Susanna is willing to die rather than submit to them. The same occurs with John the Baptist, who is beheaded because of his proclamation of the truth.

St. John Paul II has a reference to these examples in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor on the renewal of Christian morality.

“Martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God’s law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God’s image and likeness. This dignity may never be disparaged or called into question, even with good intentions, whatever the difficulties involved. Jesus warns us most sternly: “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? ”

Martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever “human meaning” one might claim to attribute, even in “exceptional” conditions, to an act morally evil in itself. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: it is a violation of man’s “humanity”, in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it. Hence martyrdom is also the exaltation of a person’s perfect “humanity” and of true “life”, as is attested by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, addressing the Christians of Rome, the place of his own martyrdom: “Have mercy on me, brethren: do not hold me back from living; do not wish that I die… Let me arrive at the pure light; once there I will be truly a man. Let me imitate the passion of my God”.

Finally, martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church. Fidelity to God’s holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary commitment usque ad sanguinem, so that the splendor of moral truth may be undimmed in the behavior and thinking of individuals and society. This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities. …

The Church’s teaching, and in particular her firmness in defending the universal and permanent validity of the precepts prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, is not infrequently seen as the sign of an intolerable intransigence, particularly with regard to the enormously complex and conflict-filled situations present in the moral life of individuals and of society today; this intransigence is said to be in contrast with the Church’s motherhood. The Church, one hears, is lacking in understanding and compassion. But the Church’s motherhood can never in fact be separated from her teaching mission, which she must always carry out as the faithful Bride of Christ, who is the Truth in person. “As Teacher, she never tires of proclaiming the moral norm… The Church is in no way the author or the arbiter of this norm. In obedience to the truth which is Christ, whose image is reflected in the nature and dignity of the human person, the Church interprets the moral norm and proposes it to all people of good will, without concealing its demands of radicalness and perfection”.

In fact, genuine understanding and compassion must mean love for the person, for his true good, for his authentic freedom. And this does not result, certainly, from concealing or weakening moral truth, but rather from proposing it in its most profound meaning as an outpouring of God’s eternal Wisdom, which we have received in Christ, and as a service to man, to the growth of his freedom and to the attainment of his happiness.

Still, a clear and forceful presentation of moral truth can never be separated from a profound and heartfelt respect, born of that patient and trusting love which man always needs along his moral journey, a journey frequently wearisome on account of difficulties, weakness and painful situations. The Church can never renounce the “the principle of truth and consistency, whereby she does not agree to call good evil and evil good”; she must always be careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick . As Paul VI wrote: “While it is an outstanding manifestation of charity towards souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ, this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ himself showed by his conversations and dealings with men. Having come not to judge the world but to save it, he was uncompromisingly stern towards sin, but patient and rich in mercy towards sinners”.”

Fr. Roberto M. Cid