Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The readings this week look back to a time of persecution for Israel, when the Greek King Antiochus basically decided to do away with religious freedom. Scrolls of the law were burned. People were forced to violate the kosher laws, violate the Sabbath laws, and sacrifice to pagan idols. Circumcision — the key physical sign of the covenant — was outlawed. In every conceivable way, the practice of the faith was outlawed with gusto. Those who refused to comply were put to death.
Perhaps what hurt most of all, though, was not the external persecution but the internal cooperation: Many people within Israel cooperated with the persecution!
Here’s the first lesson we might draw from the readings for our own day: Attacks on religious freedom are nothing new. In fact, they are a perennial reality for God’s people. So we ought not be surprised when those attacks rear their heads again today in various ways. For example, when a secular agenda on marriage, gender or abortion is pursued with zeal these days, and faithful Catholic individuals and institutions get targeted for persecution because they won’t bow to that agenda. As in ancient Israel, perhaps what hurts most of all is when people within the Church cooperate with that persecution! But, really, none of that should surprise us. It only means the history of God’s people lives on in our times.
The second lesson we can draw from the readings this week comes from the response of the faithful.
This week we hear about Eleazar. We hear about the seven brothers and their mother. We hear about Mattathias. Every episode follows the same pattern: Faced with a choice, they were faithful to God’s law, and were persecuted for their faithfulness.
Sometimes we ask ourselves, “Why be such a stickler over a small point of the law — why not compromise?” But for these faithful figures, it was a matter of considering their conscience before God, and the lesson they would be teaching others, especially the young. To give up your faith for worldly gain is a bad trade.
The final reading of the week recounts the death of King Antiochus. And there, really, is the key. The pattern unfolds the same way every time: in the end, fidelity to God’s law wins and violation of God’s law loses.
In conjunction with these lessons from the history of Israel, we also hear all week long how Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem. What awaits Him there is what has always awaited God’s people: external persecution with internal cooperation. But, even knowing that, He is steadfast in faith, trusting that He is ultimately in the hands of His Father, and that fidelity triumphs in the end.
Our temptation, when religious freedom is threatened, is to compromise our faith or to lash out in anger. Neither is the way of Jesus. Our call is to stand firm, take up the Cross, and let God win the victory — through our suffering — again.