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Maccabean Lessons about Heroism

On August 1, the Roman Martyrology (but not the General Calendar any longer) commemorates “the Holy Maccabees,” i.e., the heroic Jews who withstood assaults on their faith from within and without.

I’ve never understood why the post-Conciliar reform of the Roman calendar (which needed to be done) eliminated all the Old Testament saints from observance. The Eastern Churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) have maintained those feasts. The move is particularly odd, given the strong effort at the Council to build bridges with our elder brethren in the faith, the Jews.

Who were the “Maccabees”?  The Hebrew word means “hammer” and is properly applied only to one of the family, namely, Judas Maccabeus, the third son of the priest Mattathias and leader of the revolt against the Seleucid kings who persecuted the Jews. Eventually, the epithet was applied to his supporters in the struggle.

What lessons can we learn from these “hammers,” noble warriors of faith, extolled in Hebrews 11 – that great hymn to faith and faithful believers?

First, to fight against assimilation into a pagan culture. Initially, the Jews of that time were subjected to “soft” persecution, which offered them rewards for abandoning the traditions of their fathers (for example, circumcision and refusal to eat pork).  When that didn’t work, “hard” persecution ensued.

Don’t we find the same modus operandi today?

How many “Catholic” politicians have sold their souls to a party of death, which also promotes a vision of marriage inimical to both the natural law and Divine Revelation?

How many Catholics in the workplace are completely unidentifiable as Catholics since their lifestyle blends in seamlessly with that of the secular culture (or anti-culture)? Even though Our Lord commanded us: “What you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops” (Mt 10:27).

Second, while those Jews of old were being pushed to infidelity by the pagan society, the greater temptation to infidelity came from within their own ranks – accommodationist Jews who saw nothing wrong with hiding the mark of their circumcision at the gymnasium or ingesting a small piece of pork for sociability.

How many Catholics, even clergy, urge us to a more “moderate” approach to our life of faith? Don’t press the hot-button issues, stress the commonalities, avoid the distinctives. In fact, those “moderates” would consider a full-throated proclamation of the Gospel to be not only inadvisable but counter-productive, giving the Church a bad name.


 Third, the Maccabees remind us of the centrality of religious liberty and the need for eternal vigilance in that regard.  The Obama years brought us unprecedented full-blown attacks on religious institutions and religiously motivated people in American history. After a welcome hiatus in the previous administration, we find ourselves back to playing defense against a “Catholic” president. Fourth, these holy warriors stand out as defenders of the purity of worship and the sanctity of God’s House. As an aside, it is from this source that Jewish liturgy celebrates the feast of Hanukkah, the re-dedication of the Temple after its desecration by that day’s Pachamama.

We need to reinforce those notions today when casual attire and behavior invade our sacred precincts, let alone liturgical abuses of every kind, offensive to God and destructive of faith in thousands upon thousands of believers!  Theology holds: Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief).  What we do in the sanctuary is not a matter of indifference.

During a debate on the nature of true worship, a Protestant instructed Cardinal Newman: “Well, Dr. Newman, I suppose we shall have to agree to disagree.  You shall worship God in your way, and I in mine.” To which, St. John Henry replied: “No, reverend sir, you can surely worship God in your way; I, however, shall worship Him in His way!”

Simply put, if we can’t get the Sacred Liturgy right, we can’t get anything else right.  After all, the primary reason for the existence of the Church is to offer fitting adoration to the Triune God.

Finally, the Maccabees were able to remain faithful because of the encouragement of two elders of the Chosen People – counter-influences against the accommodationists.  The “mother of seven sons” was not helplessly forced to watch their martyrdom; she actively encouraged them to be faithful unto death.

Old Eleazar had pork shoved into his mouth, which he spat out. His persecutors – long-time friends of his – offered him a way out: “We’ll give you some meat other than pork, which only you will know.” Eleazar laughed that suggestion to scorn.

A ninety-year-old man should live a bit longer – for what?  To lead astray young Jewish men of our community by letting them think I was willing to flout the divine law?

Pope Francis regularly encourages young people to have recourse to the wisdom of their grandparents. I am confused by that counsel because, at least in my experience, it is precisely that generation (with notable exceptions) that sold out to the prevailing ethos.

I will never forget a confession of an eighty-five-year-old woman I heard as a very young priest. She confessed adultery. As the confession unfolded, she said she had thrown aside sixty-plus years of marital fidelity because listening to her granddaughter’s sexploits made her jealous and desirous of knowing what she had missed out on.

Imagine: Instead of spurring her granddaughter on to chastity, she was motivated to commit adultery.

Christ informs us that those who lead others into sin would be better off with a millstone tied to their necks and cast into the sea. (Mt 18:6)  Conversely, He tells us that those who observe even the least of the commandments and teach others to do likewise shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. (Mt 5    We need to thank Almighty God for the noble witness of the Maccabees and to pray that their tribe might increase among Catholics in our own day.


*Image: The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus [1] by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1635 [Musée d’Arts de Nantes, France]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Courage: Grace under Pressure [2]

Ines A. Murzaku’s Martyrdom “in the Hands of God” [3]

Father Peter Stravinskas holds doctorates in school administration and theology. He is the founding editor of The Catholic Response and publisher of Newman House Press. Most recently, he launched a graduate program in Catholic school administration through Pontifex University.