WHAT WOULD YOU BE WILLING TO DIE FOR?
There is a great richness and a variety of themes and topics and issues which Sacred Scripture deals with beyond what we hear each Sunday in the three-year cycle of readings. In fact, there are two weekday volumes of readings from the Bible that are heard in Masses celebrated in most parishes from Monday to Saturday and most of these text never are heard on a Sunday which means that if our only sense of Scripture is what we hear on Sunday there is much we have not heard.
Just this past week we have been hearing weekday readings from the 2 books of the Bible not contained in Protestant Bibles, First and Second Maccabees. Never heard of it? Well, let’s do a quick review.
There are 73 books in the Catholic collection of books we call The Bible. In Protestant Bibles there are only 66 books. The 66 approved books are contained in what is called the Canon of Sacred Scripture comprising of the Old and New Testaments. The 7 additional Old Testament books are known as Deutrocanonical, (‘deutro’ meaning ‘second canon’). The 7 additional books of Sacred Scripture approved by the Church are:
Tobit, Judith, the Book of Wisdom, Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, and also 7 chapters from the Book of Esther and 2 chapters and a prayer in the Book of Daniel.
If you didn’t know this, don’t worry, most people have never heard of it either. We have to remember that the Church gave the Bible to the world and not somehow the other way around. In her early days she approved of which books were inspired and those that were of a more human invention. For example, the Church did not approve the Gospel of Thomas and others as these were seen as attempts to “fill in the blanks” on the unknown parts of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And that’s why to this day you won’t find a Bible with the Gospel of Thomas contained within it, though it does exist as a separate and interesting piece of literature. Luther himself dismissed these 7 books approved by the Catholic Church as they stood in opposition to his own teachings on justification by faith alone and rejected the idea of purgatory and other theological truths which are clearly found in the Book of Maccabees and within these 7 additional books.
So just this past week, beginning on Monday we heard readings at the weekday Masses from 1 and 2 Maccabees. Pope Francis himself preached about the reading from 1 Maccabees and called the first chapter of the First Book of Maccabees “one of the saddest pages in the Bible” because “a great part of the people of God withdraw from the Lord in favor of worldly proposals.”
I myself preached this past Tuesday, both in the parish and at a Mass held at Leo J. Austin Catholic High School, about the First Reading of Tuesday Nov. 19 taken from 2 Maccabees (6:18-31) which speaks of the high-ranking and elderly scribe Eleazar who was being forced to publicly eat swine’s flesh in order that he might defile himself and break the law as a Jew which forbids the eating of pork. Eleazar spit the meat out and walked to the instrument of torture himself, preferring to die than break his covenant with God. People who had known Eleazar for a long time secretly took him aside and tried to convince him that he could bring meat of his own choosing (that was not swine flesh) and ‘appear’ to eat it with everyone thinking it was pork. Eleazar refused citing two principle reasons: he would not break the Jewish law which stood as a testimony to his ‘Jewishness’ and symbolized his loyalty before God and he did not want to give scandal to the young Jews who were still in their formative years. If they would see in Eleazar a sense of compromise in his loyalty before God, then they could presume that their own loyalty and fidelity before God could also be compromised. Eleazar would have none of it, even though he knew that to take this stance would cost him his life, “and so he declared that above all he would be loyal to the holy laws given by God.”
His dying words would be a teaching in truth to all those who would witness his martyrdom: (v 24-28)
“He told them to send him at once to the abode of the dead, explaining: “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many young people would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion.
Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age. Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now,
I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and generously for the revered and holy laws.”
Verse 30 contains the last and important things he would say just before his death on the rack:
When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned and said:“The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.”
When I spoke to both the parishioners and the students at the high school I asked, “What would you die for?” It’s a good question for all of us. Of course parents would die for their children and married couples would die for each other, but what else would we be willing to lay down our life for? St. Margaret of Clitherow, at the time of the Reformation in England when Catholicism was disbanded, Mass was forbidden and priests were murdered, was a pregnant Catholic woman who was publicly being forced to renounce her faith in the Eucharist as the True Body and Blood of Jesus. Margaret could have thought within herself that since she was being forced, God would know her heart and understand her circumstance, and she could denounce her belief in the Eucharist and live. I think we would all consider such things in order to save our lives. But Margaret refused, instead proclaiming her faith in Jesus truly present in the Eucharist. As a result of her proclamation she was dragged out into the street, laid on her back with an old wood door placed upon her, and horses were forced to trample over the door crushing her to death. She is remembered today for her witness.
So the question remains before us who live in these strange, morally turbulent times when more and more the world around us embraces the secular – What would you die for? Eleazar, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Margaret and countless other martyrs for God answered that question and left us a great model and witness with their very lives. (Fr. Charles)