Antiochus IV ruled the Seleucid empire, including Israel, from 175 to 164BC. He styled himself Epiphanes, “the Manifest God”, which his Jewish captives deliberately mispronounced Epimanes, meaning “the Mad One”. Like many mad or bad ones since, he did not reverence people’s consciences. He vilely desecrated the Temple and required the Jews to adopt pagan practices. While some went along with all this, the Maccabees revolted, retaking Jerusalem and restoring true worship within three years.
But this came at a cost. Antiochus took seven Jewish brothers and tried by torture to induce them to eat pork, which the Jews are of course forbidden to do (2Macc 7:1-14). But the boys declared that they would “die rather than break the Law of their ancestors”. One by one they suffered horrible deaths while their mother was made to watch (2Macc 7:1-41). The plucky third brother thrust out his limbs – a premonition of Jesus’ death on the cross – declaring his faith that God would restore those limbs in the Resurrection. The fourth boy’s words – “ours is the better choice” – was their motto: God and His Law must come first in our choices.
It was ever thus. In the First Eucharistic Prayer that we will pray today, we will recall Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia and Anastasia. In many ways these seven early Christian “sisters” parallel the seven Jewish brothers. What was their story? Well, Felicity was a pregnant slave and Perpetua, her mistress, herself a nursing mother, and both were torn to pieces by wild animals in the amphitheatre of Carthage. The 13-year-old Agnes was stabbed to death after suffering various indignities. St Anastasia was beheaded in Sirmium. I will not say how the other three girls – all Sicilians – were tortured and killed, except to note that in iconography St Cecilia carries her head on a plate, St Agatha her breasts and St Lucy her eyes.
We might be inclined to think such cruelty a monopoly of bygone times. Yet in the past few days, as the Christian communities and others in Mosul and Aleppo and the surrounding villages, have been liberated from the evil Daesh or I.S. organisation, the soldiers have found evidence of innumerable horrors and indignities suffered by Christians and others at the hands of their persecutors. Kidnap, exile, rape, torture and murder have been commonplace as part of a program of ‘religious cleansing’; enslavement or starvation has been the lot of the survivors; huge numbers have fled as refugees and all they once possessed has been pillaged; every Christian church and even every Christian grave desecrated; children are now being conscripted as soldiers and old people as human shields by Daesh; and on it goes.
Some years ago a papal commission concluded that there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries put together. And that rate of martyrdom is, if anything, accelerating. The secular organisation, the International Society of Human Rights, reports that acts of religious discrimination are escalating worldwide – not just in the Middle East – and that eight out of ten of these are directed against Christians. And, lest we think these things only happen in troubled places unlike our own country, we should remember that just four months ago we saw the martyrdom of Fr Jacques Hamel, cut down while saying Mass in his parish church in rural France. So when St Paul exhorts us today to “pray that we may be preserved from the interference of bigoted and evil men” (2Thess 2:16–3:5), his words were not just for ancient times. Ours is the age of the martyrs and we must pray for our brothers and sisters suffering for their faith.
One of the central teachings of the Second Vatican Council was about the dignity of the well-formed conscience and the need to reverence conscience by respecting religious liberty. In his conscience, the Council said, “man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey”. This ‘voice’ calls him to do good and avoid evil, to love rather than hate. Robert Bolt’s wonderful play, A Man for all Seasons, celebrates conscience in the life and death of the Lord Chancellor of England in the days of Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More. It was made into an excellent 1966 film starring Paul Schofield. At one point in the play Thomas and the Duke of Norfolk discuss King Henry’s plan to divorce his wife and marry another; in due course he took six wives in fact. Thomas, a loyal son of the Church and believer in the importance of authentic marriage, could not support this; like many in the current debates about the definition of marriage and gender identity he was doomed to suffer for this. Norfolk, who went wherever the winds of power blew, asks Thomas “Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!” Thomas’ reply is telling: “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I’m sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
In every age the true measure of a person has been: would they follow a wise conscience or abandon this in favour of some easier course. The seven Maccabaean brothers and the seven Roman canon sisters; the Lord Chancellor of England; the prisoners and exiles for faith in so many countries today; and the great cloud of witnesses too many to count on every age and place – were sustained in their trials by faith and fellowship. But they also had hope. The second Maccabean brother voiced this: “Since it is for His laws that we die, the [true] King of the world will raise us up to live forever.” The third brother said he hoped to receive back his limbs in that Resurrection Jesus confirmed in our Gospel today (Lk 20:27-38). Just this week past, Christians in Qaraqosh, Iraq, were able to celebrate Mass for the first time in more than two years in what was left of their church and town. The story of the perseverance of Iraqi and Syrian Christians gives us hope that the blood of the martyrs runs not in vain, and not without end.
For ours is a God, not of the dead but of the living, not in Hades but in Heaven. Those who have stood by Him and all that is true and good and beautiful will be “judged worthy of a place in the other world”. They are “the children of the Resurrection”. We know there is justice, if not in this life then in the next. There is life, if short in this world yet eternal for the saints in the next. It is up to us to join them: by listening to the voice of God in our Scriptures and tradition informing the Christian conscience; by following what He asks us there rather than the most convenient course; by trusting even when it’s hard that He will give us strength and vindicate us in the end. By the witness of the martyrs, by the Passion and the Blood, God will raise us out of darkness, for Christ has bought our souls for God!