In Advent we looked at a series of scenes based on the theme ‘The gift of a Child’. At Candlemas we gave thanks for the gift of the child Jesus as a light to the nations. Now we turn from the crib to the Cross.
During the past year many have suffered bereavement so now, during Lent, I offer a series of reflections considering loss. Whatever the age, the person remains a child to the parents.
Session 5 – Thursday 18 March – Wednesday 24 March
When all the prisoners of the land are crushed underfoot,
When human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High,
When one’s case is subverted – does not the Lord see it?
Lam 3. 34 – 36
The Maccabean mother 2 Maccabees 7
About 200 years before the birth of Jesus, the Jews were under the rule of the Greeks. Hellenistic culture and customs were taking hold but many of these were not in accordance with Jewish Law and teaching. Non-compliance was punished by torture until there was submission or death. Jews began to ignore their food laws and circumcision was kept secret.
During this regime prohibited animals were sacrificed in the Temple and improper behaviour was seen there. Some Jews tried to remain faithful and many left the cities but they were pursued. The people had been persecuted before but this administration was exceptional in its viciousness. Those who resisted became martyrs: witnesses.
The Jewish understanding of death also changed at this time and in these circumstances. Previously death was understood as a journey to a shadow land, Sheol (Psalm 88), a time of waiting for those who had died. Death was to be avoided but the family name was continued by the descendants. Now, possibly influenced by Hellenic teaching, a different more positive and hopeful viewpoint developed. Wisdom literature introduces such ambiguous concepts as immortality and incorruptibility. In the face of persecution, a modification of ideas tries to come to an understanding of torture and death: ‘the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, no torment will ever touch them’ (Wisdom 3. 1).
It is in this context that we meet a mother and her seven sons. They are all arrested because they will not comply with the requirements of the ruling power: they will not eat pork. The eldest is the first to be dealt with. The torture is described in graphic detail. The rest of the family watch as one by one the sons are tortured and killed because they will not submit: they refuse to abandon their beliefs. Each of them bears witness, as martyrs, to God: ‘The Lord God is watching over us’
(2 Macc 7. 6). All seven die.
Their mother encourages her sons, reminding them of the scriptures. She is described as: ‘especially admirable and worthy of honourable memory’ (2 Macc 7. 20). As she watches she expresses her feelings with some antagonism but also with courage: ‘The creator of the world … will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again’ (2 Macc 7. 23). As the seventh son dies we are told: ‘he died in integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord (2 Macc 7. 40). Finally the mother dies. The mother and sons gain eternal life as they refuse to submit to a violent human king but the power of this king is nothing compared with the power of God. God will rescue all who die for him: the family relies on the promise of salvation and eternal life.
There is much injustice shown to this family and many families now feel that they have been unfairly treated by the authorities with regard to availability of drugs or care, the severity of lockdown regulations, the loss of employment and income. For those with faith, trust in the long term plan that God has for each individual can be a consolation but this does not negate the different reactions experienced. Hope and despair mingle together. These feelings can be expressed as we lament within the safety of a nurturing community, offering reassurance and encouragement, and as we listen to each other. While some people may be able to see a way forward and may live with hope, for others it may never be possible for the loss involved in such disastrous events to be absorbed and recovery may seem impossible.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Mat 5. 10
We praise and adore you, God, our Father.
You are the maker of all things and you sustain your creation with love.
You, O Father, are full of compassion.
Direct our hearts to be compassionate towards those
who are persecuted for their beliefs or way of life.
Keep us from making unhelpful comments or hasty judgements
but encourage us to try to understand a different point of view.
May we endeavour to treat all with the respect they deserve
as your beloved children. Amen