This past Sunday, the first reading we heard from the second Book of Maccabees, chapter 7, is one that comes up liturgically only once every three years. But it is one of the most inspiring stories to read in all the Scriptures. And though it may not seem so at first glance, it is very relevant to today and I believe to our future.
It is the story of a mother and her seven sons who are commanded by the king to eat pork. In their time and tradition, that was a sin. So basically the king tries to force them to do something their conscience tells them is wrong and displeasing to God. It is quite intense. At the risk of going to hell and forfeiting heaven, each of the sons chooses to obey God, and not sin. And so the king orders each of them to be killed since they refuse his request. And, lo and behold, this is what happens: each of them dies a martyr’s death, with their mother encouraging each one of them to be faithful and not give in to the king – all the while witnessing these things. Eventually the youngest son is left: and in the face of impending torture, his mother tenderly, courageously says to him:
“Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age.
I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way mankind came into existence. 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.”
And so what happens? The boy says to the executioner: “What is the delay? I will not obey the king’s command. I obey the command of the law given to our ancestors through Moses… and you will not escape the hands of God.”
And, as painful as that would be, that mother went to her own death a righteous and eternally happy mother. Her sons did exactly what she wanted them to do: and they wear the resurrected victor’s crown.
The very thought of dying a martyr’s death is frightening to many of us. I pray that if this ever comes my direction as a priest that I am faithful to God – and, one never knows. I’m about 48 years old, but it could come in my lifetime.
At the very beginning of our inception as a nation, both Catholics and priests were persecuted because of their adherence to the Catholic faith. And we know well, that even though at present we live a very “comfortable Catholicism” here in America, already signs seem to indicate that our choice for God, for Jesus Christ, for the Holy Father and for the high calling and standards of our Catholic faith are being fiercely challenged and there is an attempt for them to be “eroded.” A slow, subtle erosion… and yet also a present opportunity to grow strong as a church.
In the larger world-view, there are many Catholics and Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. Some are in Syria, the Middle East and in Africa. They have lost homes, their livelihoods, their families and even their lives – though the mainstream media mostly fails to report this.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness” Our Lord said about these good faithful souls [in the Beatitudes, Matthew Chapter 5.]
Here on our soil, I think of what is being challenged in the arena of religious freedom. Just as the king tried to pressure the Maccabeans, isn’t our government putting pressure on the church, religious institutions, groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Christian businesses like Hobby Lobby to cave in and compromise on their principles?
As we enter a dramatic week that will surely change history in the United States of America, I hope you will pray with me that our state of freedom in faith remains united. As a priest friend of mine often said, “May God bless America, and may God save America.”
And so I ask myself: what does my Catholic faith really mean to me? Am I willing to stand for it, am I willing to vote for political candidates who will respect it? One day, hopefully a very long time from now, with the help of God’s grace, am I even willing to die for it?