January 11, 2019 (Edward J. Barr – Contributor) – The period of the Maccabees (175 to 134 BC) was a time of persecution of the faith and a crisis of conscience for the faithful. At that time the subjugation of the Jewish people was at the hands of the Seleucid Greeks. The hopes of Jewish independence and freedom of religion that surged during the period after the return from exile had faded away in the realization that the relative benign control of the Persian Empire was replaced by a brutal Hellenization campaign by their new overlords. King Antiochus Epiphanes ordered that all under his reign worship only the pagan gods. He banned the Sabbath worship, the study of the Torah, and the adherence to the Mosaic dietary laws. Most egregious was his defiling of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Today faithful Christians face a lesser but growing subjugation. The elimination of prayer from schools, of the sacred from the public square, the enforcement of inherently evil acts upon religious organizations, and the exultation of objective sin by the secular authorities has led to an attempt to banish God from society, replacing constitutionally provided freedom of religion with a freedom of worship that inhibits free speech. While the post Christian world of the secular West has not reached the brutality of the pagan culture that oppressed the Jewish people during the Maccabean era, faithful Catholics can be strengthened by the responses made by their Jewish ancestors during their time of turmoil.
The response of the faithful in the Maccabean era can be boiled down to three options; compromise, martyrdom, or resistance (fight). Many in Israel decided it was easier to go along with the culture rather than to face the consequences of remaining true to the Mosaic law. Like cultural Catholics today, these Jews could not be told apart from the Greeks, be it in terms of their behaviors or even their physical characteristics. To blend in with the world many Jews refrained from circumcising their boys, enrolling their children in the pagan gymnasium structure of learning. They ignored the teachings of the faith, often embracing Greek culture and worship over that of the one true God. Even many priests were complicit in these blasphemies. Their counterparts today would be Catholics who seldom attend mass, who don’t believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and those who put worldly values above spiritual ones, such as equating concern over the environment with opposing inherent evil acts such as abortion.
In the midst of darkness, the light shines all the brighter. So it was during the Maccabean era, when heroic acts of martyrdom bolstered the faithful and demonstrated that love of God cannot be extinguished by evil men. Preeminent among the martyrs was Eleazar and an unnamed woman and her seven sons. Eleazar was a noble elderly man who was well respected in the community. When the Greek authorities attempted to force him to eat pork in compliance with the king’s edict, they offered him an opportunity to pretend to eat pork, thus saving his life. He rejected this falsehood, commenting that he did not want to mislead his co-religious. “But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture…” (2 Macc. 6:19)
Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who, seeing her seven sons perish in a single day, bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord. (2 Macc. 7: 20) The sons were being tortured in order to force them to eat pork and renounce their faith. The king supervised the torture, beginning with the oldest to youngest, each bearing increasingly more horrific assaults. After the first six were executed, the king appealed to the mother to convince her seventh and last son to comply with his command. The mother leaned over to her son, and in her native language, said, “Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.” (2 Macc. 7: 29) The king flew into a rage and killed the seventh son in the cruelest manner. His mother was the last to die.
There is as of yet no similar martyrdom offered to Catholics in the West; however, an oppressive “white martyrdom” has fallen upon us. In certain states Catholic charities cannot provide adoption services, since they refuse to comply with the secular church’s teaching concerning so-called “gay” marriage. Those in the medical community face pressure and loss of employment for non-adherence to the pagan “sacrament” of abortion. Freedom of speech is repressed as is freedom of conscience; speaking the truth about gender can result in loss of one’s livelihood. The vehemence of some in the secular church opposed to the public representation of the Christ child in the manger at Christmas is matched only by their stifling silence to the Islamic demand that there be no public portrayal of Muhammad. There is no doubt which religion is the target of the secular church.
The final response of the Jewish people in Maccabean times was to fight. Emblematic of this effort was the man after which the Maccabean era is named, Judas Maccabeus. The Maccabean revolt began under Judas’s father Mattathias and reached its pinnacle under the leadership of his son. Judas, nicknamed “the hammer,” started by leading a small band of brothers operating in the Judean hills. He and his followers were loyal to the teaching of the Mosaic law; he prayed before each battle and evidenced a complete trust in God. The most renowned of his victories resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem, and the re-dedication of the temple in 164 BC. It was then that one days’ worth of oil in the menorah lasted for eight days. The celebration of Hanukkah was born!
The Christian response today will not replicate Judas’ bloody battles. Yet, it will require complete trust in the Lord and both prayer and action. “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Eph. 6:12) We are blessed with some far more potent tools than were available to Judas Maccabeus. Specifically, Christ and his church. In all that we do our actions must point to Christ and his cross. We must fight the battle in a Trinitarian fashion on three fronts; with the church militant, the church suffering, and the church triumphant.
As members of the church militant living in this world we have a duty and responsibility to proclaim the gospel. To prepare ourselves to participate in the battle in the greater world, we must first transform ourselves interiorly. Since we can do nothing without God, we must rely on the graces contained in the sacraments he gives us through his church. Being truly made holy through sanctifying grace in our baptism, we can hold onto that grace and persevere to the end only by embracing the teachings of Christ and the gifts He provides to us. In addition to the sacraments, we can embrace sacramentals and devotions that draw us closer to Christ and transform our souls. We can then translate that inner strength we receive to outward actions in the world. Participation not only in church but societal activities can provide us an opportunity to support the church’s mission to renew the face of the world. A simple action such as making the sign of the cross when at a public restaurant can strengthen both your faith and those who observe your act of piety. It plants the flag of Christ in the public square.
Catholics have a faithful ally in the church suffering. Judas Maccabeus recognized the requirement to pray for the dead when he found some of his fighters who had been killed wearing an amulet to a false god. He and his men prayed for their souls, so that they could be delivered to the abode of Abraham. Just as Judas did, we can pray for our faithful departed in purgatory to be cleansed of their imperfections and reach the beatific vision in heaven. There, they will be powerful allies in supporting us in the battles we face in our lives. They and others in the church triumphant can support us as we ask for their intercession. The Apostle John provided us with this certainty when he wrote, “Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones.” (Rev. 5:8b)
The Catholic Church today is under severe attack. Elements both outside and inside the church are causing many of the faithful to experience the same crisis of faith faced by the Jewish people in the Maccabean era. Too many have succumbed to the pleasures of the world, replacing God with many false gods, as they embrace the falsities of materialism, modernism, and postmodernism. This can only lead to their demise. St. Teresa of Kolkata stated that, “God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful.” If we meditate on the challenges faced by our Jewish brethren during the days of the Maccabees, and faithfully adhere to the teachings of Christ and his church, we can be successful in keeping the faith. That’s what Judas would do!
Edward J Barr is a Catechist, an attorney, an intelligence officer, a Marine, and a university faculty member. He has a graduate certificate in theology from the Augustine Institute, where he continues to study. This article is a synopsis of an adult education lecture offered to Catholic parishes and men’s groups. Mr. Barr is a contributing writer for the Roma Locuta Est blog (www.RomaLocutaEst.com).