Making the right choice

On August 1, we commemorated the Holy Seven Maccabee Children, Solomone their mother, and Eleazar their Teacher. They were all put to death in the year 168 BC. They were thus protomartyrs before the time of Christ and the martyrs of the Christian era. They died because they refused to reject the precepts of the Law when ordered to do so by the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV. After conquering the Holy Land, Antiochus wanted to subvert the uniqueness of the Jews and force them to assimilate to the standards and practices of the prevailing Hellenistic culture. By attacking the precepts of the Law, Antiochus was aiming to destroy the very heart of Judaism. The Jews would then become like the “other nations,” and perhaps their smoldering resentment against their conquerors would be extinguished. This, of course, did not happen, because the Maccabean revolt, led by Judas Maccabaeus, not only resisted but expelled the Hellenized Syrian invaders and restored the Kingdom of Israel to its former glory days one last time [142 - 63 BC] before the Romans under Pompey reduced the Kingdom of Israel to a conquered province.

To return to the story of the Maccabees, we find them, under the guidance of their teacher Eleazar, resisting the decree that they eat pork, which was prohibited by the Law. Understanding that this was a threat against their entire traditional way of life, Eleazor refused and was subsequently tortured until he died. He was simply asked to “pretend” to eat the meat, so as to encourage others to do so. In reply, his dying words, as recorded in 2 Maccabees 6:24-28, eloquently attest to his fidelity to the Law of God:

Send me quickly to my grave. If I went through with this pretense at my time of life, many of the young might believe that at the age of ninety Eleazar had turned apostate. If I practiced deceit for the sake of a brief moment of life, I should lead them astray and bring stain and pollution on my old age. I might for the present avoid man’s punishment, but, alive or dead, I shall never escape from the hands of the Almighty. So if I now die bravely, I shall show that I have deserved my long life and leave the young a fine example, to teach them how to die a good death, gladly and nobly, for our revered and holy laws.

Following the death of Eleazar, the seven Maccebee brothers were arrested together with their mother, Salomone. They were also tortured for refusing to eat pork, and one of them said: “We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers” [2 Maccabees 7:2]. Enraged by such pious resistance, the tyrant ordered that all seven brothers be tortured by various inhumane means. All of this was witnessed by their mother, who watched all seven of her sons perish in a single day. Acting “against nature,” she encouraged her children “in her native tongue” to bravely withstand the assaults on their tender flesh:

You appeared in my womb, I know not how; it was not I who gave you life and breath and set in order your bodily frames. It is the Creator of the universe who moulds man at his birth and plans the origin of all things. Therefore he, in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put his laws above all thought of self [2 Maccabees 7:22-23].

We find in her last sentence a clear allusion to belief in the resurrection from the dead.

Especially poignant is the death of her last and youngest son. He was promised riches and a high position if he only agreed to “abandon his ancestral customs.” The mother was urged to “persuade her son,” which she did in the following manner:

My son, take pity on me. I carried you nine months in the womb, suckled you three years, reared you and brought you up to the present age. I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way. Do not be afraid of this butcher; accept death and prove yourself worthy of your brothers, so that by God’s mercy I may receive you back again along with them [2 Maccabees 7:27-29].

In verse 28, we may hear the clearest declaration of the belief that God creates “ex nihilo” (from nothing) in the entire Old Testament.

The youngest of the brothers then died after witnessing to the meaning of their martyrdom and warning the tyrant of his own inevitable fate:

My brothers have now fallen in loyalty to God’s covenant, after brief pain leading to eternal life; but you will pay the just penalty of your insolence by the verdict of God. I, like my brothers, surrender my body and my life for the laws of our fathers…. [2 Maccabees 7:36-37].

We then simply read that “after her sons, the mother died” [2 Maccabees 7:39[.

It is difficult to say to what extent we can actually relate to all of this today. We may deeply respect the devotion to the Law that is exhibited in this moving story of multiple martyrdoms—and perhaps be especially moved by the beautiful words of the mother that express our own belief in the creative power of God, His providential care for us and the ultimate gift of resurrection and eternal life with God—but this is far removed from our contemporary Christian sensibilities. In fact, such devotion today could very well strike us as being overly-zealous, if not fanatical. The prospects of such martyrdoms are not exactly on our radar screens. Be that as it may, I believe that we have something more than passingly important that we can learn from this ancient story.

On August 1, we begin the Dormition Fast. We are encouraged by the Church—our “Mother,” we could say—to embrace the fast with the certainty that we are being guided into a practice that is designed to strengthen our spiritual wellbeing. This is part of an Orthodox Christian way of life that has been witnessed to for centuries by the faithful of the Church. We could also say that such practices belong to the “laws of our fathers.” By embracing such practices, we continue in the traditions that have been handed down to us. To ignore such practices is to break with that Tradition. That can lead to an erosion of our self-identity as Orthodox Christians, especially considering our “minority status” in the landscape of American religion. The spirit of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes is alive and well in the constant temptation we face to assimilate to the surrounding culture. But that “culture” is often reduced to finding the meaning of life in “eating, drinking and making merry.” There are no official decrees that demand that we abandon our Faith. But there is a never-ending drone that ‘pollutes” the atmosphere with the seductions of a Godless way of life, precisely because of of how pleasingly it is presented. In other words, a dear price is paid for the comforts of conformity.

We are hardly being asked to be martyrs; but to manifest some restraint and discipline in order to strengthen our inner lives as we fast bodily to some extent. If we convince ourselves that this is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or undesirable, then we place ourselves outside of the very Tradition we claim to follow and respect. Older members of the community can bear in mind the words of Eleazar and realize that we are setting an example for our younger members. We are responsible for preparing the next generation. Mothers—and fathers!—can exhort their children in a way that is encouraging and not just demanding. This has nothing to do with mere “legalism,” but with a way of life that has been practiced for centuries by Orthodox Christians, and which is just as meaningful today as in the past. As with the Seven Maccabee Children, we are forced to make a choice: either capitulate to the demands of the “tyrant” and renounce our spiritual heritage, or humbly place our faith in the “God of our fathers” and “put his laws above all thought of self.”