The ancestral lands of the Israelites have been, for many centuries occupied and contested territory. It was only for brief periods of time that the Israelites lived without fear of invasion or free from the tyranny of foreign overlords.
In 587 BC, the Kingdom of David came to an end, and the Israelites were driven from their ancestral lands by the Babylonians, forcing the population into exile and slavery. Around 539 BC, the Persian empire supplanted the Babylonians and allowed Israelites to resettle their ancestral lands, but only if they understood themselves to be subjects of, and the land the possession of, the Persian emperor. The Persian Empire fell to the armies of Alexander the Great and this basically gave control of the Israelites and their territory, after Alexander the Great’s death to Greeks, first the Ptolemies and then, around 200 BC to the Seleucids.
Around the year 175 BC, a Seleucid by the name of Antiochus Epiphanes was in control of the Israelite territory and he made the error of deposing the High Priest Onias and replacing him with a man named Jason, an act that provoked a civil war. A period of violent tribulation began in which Jason was later deposed by a man name Menelaus, who had Onias killed, and was later deposed by Jason. With the entire Israelite territory torn apart by violence, Antiochus and his armies invaded and occupied the city of Jerusalem. The temple was desecrated and martial law imposed. Laws forcing Israelites to abandon their rituals and customs were enforced and Israelites were compelled to conform to Greek culture.
This is the historical background of the Old Testament texts the Church will present to us at Mass for coming week. The first reading will be a passage taken from the Book of Maccabbees, which is the story of how the Israelites resisted and eventually overcame the persecution of the Antiochus Epiphanes.
The meaning of these scriptures for us is not limited to mere historical details, but they should provoke a serious consideration of the relationship of our own profession and practice of the Christian faith to the politics, economics and culture of our own time. Politics, economics and culture are not neutral realities and at times compel faithful believers to a decision to stand against the prevailing politics, economics or culture of a given age.
There are always elements of politics, economics, and culture that the Church can appropriate, but the Church cannot compromise the commandments of God or the integrity of the Apostolic Faith.
At times, the Church must stand against a culture or political or economic system and when this happens, and it has happened often in the past, Christians have to be courageous.
We live in a culture that permits a significant measure of freedom in regards to our profession and practice of the Church’s Faith, but this is not the case for many of the world’s Christians, and for many Christians, the stories of the Maccabees do not simply describe the past, but their own present experience.
The reality that so many Christians live in oppressive situations and in fear of violence should cut us to the heart. We might have been spared such tribulations, but the Body of Christ, of which we are a part, suffers greatly.
We should keep this in mind in terms of what we think the priorities of the Church should be and whether or not, we have become, in Pope Francis’ words, “closed in on ourselves” and unable to see the bigger picture of the lived experience of most of the world’s Christians. The affluence and securities that protect us, often narrows our vision, and this creates it’s own kinds of troubles for the Church.
It is easy for our vision of the Church to become distorted and the practice of our faith self-interested. We risk ignoring the demand of love in the immediacy of our lives and the urgency of the call to serve Christ. Life as a disciple can be construed as getting from the Church what we believe that we rightly deserve, rather than making of our lives a sacrifice in imitation of Christ.
The mission of the Church is not a project of our own making, but it happens in our willingness to do what Christ asks us to do. Mercy is not an idea or abstraction, but is embodied in very real practices of life that we cannot delegate away to social service agencies or government programs. If we do not listen to and speak up for persecuted Christians, what reason will we give to the Lord Jesus for our indifference and silence?
The Church is not a clubhouse, it is, to quote Pope Francis, a field hospital and for many Christians the wounds they bear are the tortures and torments of persecution.
In this regard, we are compelled to ask ourselves how we are preparing ourselves to leave the clubhouse behind and get to work in the field hospital.
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