King Antiochus IV died 164 years before the coming of Christ, as recorded in the first book of Maccabees, chapter 6. The manner of the king’s death is instructive. He began to die when he realized that two of his major initiatives were failures: his military campaigns in Persia and in Judea. Failure is a form of death to a man of success, such as Antiochus. He had successfully claimed the throne. He had conquered Judea and even Egypt, but then he lost Judea to the Maccabees, while simultaneously failing in Persia, so he took to his bed, overcome by grief and anxiety. He would never arise from it.
While on his deathbed, he summoned his friends and made something of a confession. His self-assessment seems rather balanced. He says that he had been kindly and beloved by the people, but that he had done evil to the people of Jerusalem, which was why he saw death now coming for him. From this situation he saw no escape, except, before perishing, to arrange for his son, Antiochus V, to succeed him to the throne.
But what if King Antiochus IV had died some centuries later? And what if St. Paul had visited him as he was dying? What would be the message of good news that St. Paul would bring? And what if you were St. Paul, standing at the dying man’s bedside? Could you tell him the good news, or is there something stopping you?
The Jewish feast of Hanukah celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the gentiles. Scripture records this event in 1 Maccabees 4, together with the date: “the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Kislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight,” which, in today’s calendar would be December 14, 164 B.C.
Some parallels can be drawn between the rededication of the Jerusalem temple and the Christian life. The desecration of the altar by the gentiles corresponds to the damage done to the soul by sin, both personal and original. The removal of the desecrated altar stones by the Jews and their replacement with new stones corresponds to baptism, by which we share in Christ’s death and new life. The dedication of the restored altar by means of Mosaic sacrifices corresponds to the Eucharist, which re-presents the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The ornamentation of the temple facade corresponds to the ornamentation of the soul with the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and with the virtues.
Thus, the Christian life is like the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. In this sense, we become temples that are purified, dedicated and functioning. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19)
One of the goals of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola is for the retreatant, in prayer, to share the experiences of Jesus Christ, inasmuch as the condition of the retreat allows, and inasmuch as God, in His grace, bestows. This means feeling joyful with Christ joyful, angry with Christ in anger, pain with Christ suffering, etc.
The purpose of this reflection, today, is to challenge you to feel sadness with Christ weeping. Luke’s gospel tells us of the journey Jesus took to Jerusalem, the holy city, the place where he will ultimately be crucified. Luke tells us that when Jesus was approaching Jerusalem, when he finally saw the city, he wept for it (Luke 19:41-44). The text does not say that Jesus, who was from a small town, felt excitement or that he was dazzled by the immensity of the city. It says that he wept. His sadness stemmed from his knowledge that Jerusalem would not “recognize the time of its visitation.” In other words, he wept because he knew that the majority of the inhabitants would not accept the salvation he was about to offer them.
Do you think that Jesus was right to weep? If so, can you join him in feeling this way when you, yourself, visit a great city? Or are you so lost in enthusiasm and admiration for the cultural achievements that the city contains? “Children, be on your guard against idols” (1John 5:21).
In the second book of the Maccabees we read about the heroic martyrs of the Jewish people. “Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who saw her seven sons perish in a single day, yet bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord” (2 Macc 7:20). This mother was able to put her hope into words for her sons, thereby giving them encouragement to obey God’s laws rather than the laws of human beings. In her wisdom, she taught her children, giving them the best gifts: knowledge of God, hope in God’s promises, and courage in the face of God’s enemies.
With Thanksgiving tomorrow, and with the holiday season upon us, it is time to think about giving the best gifts to our friends and family members. It’s also time to think about obtaining the best gifts ourselves. Let’s add these gifts to our list: deeper knowledge of God, greater hope in God’s promises, and firmer courage in the face of God’s enemies.
These gifts come ultimately from God, but we can collaborate in the giving process. To collaborate in obtaining the first gift, read the Bible or a reputable work of theology. For the second gift: make a daily act of hope, such as an internet search might reveal. For the third gift, look for ways to mention God or the angels or the saints in conversations with people who might be hostile to the topic. And whenever you experience these gifts, be thankful.
The second book of Maccabees tells us about Eleazar, the scribe, a Jewish man of advanced age who was forced by his pagan enemies either to eat non-Kosher food or to be tortured to death. When they saw that he preferred death and torture, and when they saw that many young people looked up to him for an example, they offered him another option: to eat food that appeared to be non-Kosher, but which really was, in fact, Kosher, thereby both saving his life and keeping God’s commandments. Ah, but even this the great old man refused to do. So they tortured him to death. Before he died he said “I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to Him,” (2 Macc 6:30) namely, to God.
The great old man was noble, honest and devout: an admirable combination. And although most of us respect him, as we read his story, and many of us feel an urge to imitate him to some degree, chances are we have a long way to go before we reach his level of devotion. Can we even bear the suffering of a trip down the road, getting stuck in traffic and seeing unfair and unsafe driving maneuvers? Can we bear the suffering of an unkind word? Can we bear the suffering of our own illnesses and inadequacies? Where is the joy in our soul? Where is our devotion? Perhaps we no longer care what God is, or what God is doing for each one of us. Perhaps we ought to be more mindful of these things.
“On the fifteenth day of the month Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-five, the king erected the horrible abomination upon the altar of burnt offerings” (1 Macc 1:54). Notice the detail in this verse around the date, but the lack of detail, both here and in adjacent verses, around the “horrible abomination.” What exactly was the horrible abomination? Scripture is vague on this point.
At the time of the Maccabees, Pre-Christian pagans had overrun Israel, and many Jews began to lapse from Judaism into some form of polytheism. In order to better fit in with the world around them, some decided to adapt pagan customs, thereby rejecting the God of Israel and His covenant. The real low point was that some sort of “horrible abomination” was set up in the temple in Jerusalem, even upon the altar of burnt offerings. Why doesn’t scripture detail exactly what that “horrible abomination” was?
Rejecting evil, it seems to me, is an important part of choosing good. This is why in the rite of baptism, the candidates are asked if they reject Satan. Now, rejecting Satan is not the same thing as ignoring Satan. Far from it. But it does mean refusing to spend all day sitting at his feet, listening attentively as he tells you his stories of evil in detail.
Give the Devil his due, but don’t give him the last word, or the first word, or even the majority of the words. Marginalize him. Keep Jesus Christ and his goodness front and center.
When you go to a museum or a church and you look at the depictions of Our Lord and of His saints and His angels, you tend to see them portrayed in a positive light. They tend to have beautiful proportions, handsome appearances and attractive attire. You do not tend to see skin blemishes or wrinkles, ungainly costumes or awkward expressions. This is not because the artist is trying to cover up the humanity of the saints and of Our Lord, but because he or she is trying to portray the beauty of sanctity using exterior forms, like proportion, color, shading, shape, etc. The idea is that the exterior forms are reflections of the interior forms: virtues, graces, gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. When we see the beautiful depiction of a saint, we should become inspired by the beauty of the spiritual life. Thus, the beautiful appearance is but a vehicle by which we are carried up to a higher good, a beautiful reality.
A note of caution is in order, though, to avoid confusing something that merely appears good with something that really is good. This is why we have Proverbs 31:30: “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”
Whether you are a woman or a man: how much time do you spend on your appearance and on your charm? How much time do you spend fearing the LORD? Which one of these is really more important to you: appearance or reality?
To read some spiritual writers of recent decades, you might get the impression that the keeping of the commandments is an entry-level affair, as if it is a concern primarily of children and of recent converts, but that after some time and some maturing as a Christian, the focus is put on loftier things, like relationships, prayer techniques, and theological concepts. It is not that these authors will come right out and say that God’s commandments are irrelevant, but that they have a consistent tendency to direct their readers’ attention elsewhere.
St. Paul was not such a writer. Again and again, he pounds away at the importance of God’s commands. He “charges” his readers (Cf. 1 Tim 6:13) to keep God’s commandment “without stain or reproach.” Again and again, he calls upon God as his witness, and he calls upon Jesus Christ as his witness, as he imposes the obligation of obeying God’s commandments all of the time, avoiding even the appearance of an infraction.
His point is not that we should have an obsessive mania over our sins, but that we engage in a responsible and whole-hearted process of overcoming them, with the help of God’s grace. This is why St. Ignatius, in his spiritual exercises, so strongly encourages a regular examination of conscience.
“Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils.” So wrote St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy.
St. Ignatius has his retreatants meditate on this truth in a special way as part of his spiritual exercises. Inside one of those exercises, he presents a three stage process of temptation. First comes the desire for riches, then the longing for honor, and finally pride, which is the fount of all the vices.
Thus, when a new cell phone comes out, sometimes we feel like we have to have it, because its new features will increase efficiency and productivity, improve communication etc. Hidden inside that desire for riches, there may, in fact, be lurking two other temptations. Maybe we think that having that cell phone will make us a go-to person, and improve our reputation, either in our own eyes or in the eyes of others, and that would be the desire for worldly honor that St. Ignatius is warning us about. Maybe we think that, more than anyone else, we deserve the credit for becoming a better person by having this new cell phone, and this is the pride that we are being warned about.
Jesus would often incur suspicion by reaching out to prostitutes and tax collectors. It strikes us as a little bit odd that these two professions are so often joined together in the New Testament. What was so bad about collecting taxes that the profession was put on the same level as prostitution?
Scripture scholars can tell us about the complex reality between the Roman government and the Jewish people, and between Roman pagan culture and Jewish culture, but that is not the purpose of the gospel. The purpose of the gospel is not to explore the political, economic and religious tensions between the Jews and the Romans, but to proclaim the good news of the salvation of Jesus Christ.
St. Matthew the apostle sensed the nearness of that salvation. He was a tax collector sitting at his toll booth when he heard Jesus call him: “Follow me.” And St. Matthew got up and followed him. The gospel records the calling of St. Matthew to inspire us to do what he did: to hear Jesus, and to get up and follow Him, and to leave all other things, good or bad, to the care of His providence.