By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross
Sunday 6 November, 2016
St Ninians & St Chads Church, Maylands
Today’s first reading might come straight out of the pages of a horror film about a psychopathic monster who tortures his victims, fries their tongues, makes brawn out of their brain and eats their fingers and toes as if it is a dim sim. This fate awaited those loyal Jews who lived about 160 years before Jesus who refused to abandon their faith, a proof of which was their willingness to eat pork and do the bidding of the barbaric Syrian king.
The books of the Maccabees were written about the same time as the Book of Daniel. These books are among the latest of the Jewish writings before the birth of Jesus and were written during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV who sparked a rebellion against him by loyal Jews because he entered Jerusalem in 168 BC and desecrated the Temple. The rebellion was led by a brave warrior called Judas Maccabeus and our first reading is an encouragement to the Jews to face death, however violent that might be, rather than abandon the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Maccabees carried out a form of guerrilla warfare against Antiochus and the Book of Daniel is a coded message to the faithful that God would not abandon them.
The Maccabees were fervent nationalists and orthodox believers, who came to believe that the faithful would live on beyond the grave. They believed that there would be a resurrection of the righteous dead, and it was Judas Maccabeus who offered a sacrifice to God on behalf of those who had died who were not completely righteous, that their sins might be forgiven.
“Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46). This is the basis for the Catholic belief about praying for the faithful departed, that their purification might be complete and their sins forgiven.
When the Maccabean wars were ended, politics once more came to the fore and two Jewish groups became prominent. One group was a lay movement who were the spiritual descendants of the Maccabees. In this movement the members tried to maintain their holiness by keeping themselves separate from anyone or anything that was ritually impure. They kept the Law of Moses, but as well as the written Law, they embraced the teachings about the Law that were handed on by the oral tradition of the rabbis. They practiced circumcision, kept strict dietary laws and observed strict prayer times. Like the Maccabees they believed in the resurrection of the faithful dead when God’s Kingdom arrived in its fullness. They also accepted the existence of angels and demons. We know this group as the Pharisees.
The second group was the priestly group. They advocated a policy of tolerance and compromise with the secular authorities in exchange for being allowed to maintain the worship of the Temple. They also recognised the Law of Moses, but only the written text of the first 5 books of the Old Testament. They did not accept the oral tradition of the law’s interpretation as the Pharisees did. They did not accept any possibility of life after death because it was not written in the Torah. They also rejected any belief in angels and demons. We know this group as the Sadducees.
The gospel reading for today tells of Jesus becoming involved in a clash between the Sadducees and Pharisees over the issue of life continuing beyond the grave. The Sadducees tried to disgrace Jesus by telling him the story of a woman married to seven brothers and then asking whose wife she would be in the afterlife. What they were assuming was that our sets of relationships in the next world would be lived exactly like they are on earth. If you think about it, this cannot be so. On earth we live in time and space. We are male and female in order to reproduce.
Beyond this earth there is no time and there is no need to reproduce. Once you have wiped away outward appearances, what we are left with is the essence of who we are, which is eternal and indestructible. We can say no more than that, but Jesus is clear that on this matter the Pharisees are right. Ironically they later refused to acknowledge the resurrection of Jesus because they believed in the resurrection of God’s righteous people, not an individual.
To accept that life beyond the grave is real, but is not a replica of life on earth takes great faith. We don’t know how it will be but love will not let us go, and in Christ we are all united. We will be close to God and to each other.
The early Christians preached the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus and that is what we must do. The Maccabean Jews were persecuted for refusing to abandon their faith. Two thousand years on, it is still the case that Christians face horrific deaths for not abandoning their faith. Traditional Christians today are persecuted and vilified, not only by the secular world, but by the Christian equivalent of the Sadducees who advocated compromise and tolerance of secular values in order to be allowed to live and worship in peace. Religion was allowed so long as it was a private matter that did not impinge on society. Does this sound familiar?
We are facing as big a struggle as the Maccabees and we must be as resolute in defending the faith of the Church. Jesus and the Church cannot be separated from each other, so a unified Church is important if we are to present the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
St Paul told the Thessalonians that to be faithful takes more than human strength, but as God has always strengthened the faithful he will continue to do so. Paul warns his readers that not everyone will accept the gospel, and in fact some will try to stop it, or at least neutralise it from having any influence in the life of society. Yet behind the faithful stands God who will strengthen those who do not give in and who resist the onslaughts of the evil one.
We may not have our tongues cut out or brains turned into brawn, but we have to stand fast and proclaim God’s truth with conviction, so that in the end we will be raised to the heavenly realms and take our place alongside the saints in glory.