I sought light from the Lord with a special intensity and focus on the day of the last US presidential elections and even more the day after it when the results were confirmed. The Office of Readings, a liturgical prayer of the Church, taken from Scripture, God’s living word, spoke to me and shed a bright light upon this crucial moment in a battle of cultures.
That day’s liturgical reading was the story from 1Mac.2 in which Mattathias and his brothers stand up to the pagan Kings’ unjust decree that called them to apostatize. Wednesday told of how Judas Maccabeus led the fight to defend Israel from the aggressions of those who surrounded them.
These readings don’t call us to literally take up arms but they do communicate a spirit which is vitally needed if we are to take a stand and fight for the Culture of Life in this most desperate hour of need. It is a call to faith, courage and evangelization!
The Compromise of Faith
"Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us." (1Mac.1:12) The story of Mattathias and his family begins with a compromise. The People of Israel forsake their Faith and heritage. After Alexander the Great has conquered the world around Israel, his officers divided the Kingdom, began to rule and “caused many evils”. Before long Jerusalem is sacked and the Temple is violated, stripped, desecrated and defiled. The attack is so severe that the Jews flee and Jerusalem becomes a stronghold of the Gentile aggressors. Israel mourned deeply in every community, rulers and elders groaned, young women and young men became faint, the beauty of the women faded. (1Mac.1;25-26)
The result of the defeat and occupation of the Holy City of Jerusalem is described as a loss of what had once been the pride and glory of the nation. HHer sanctuary became desolate like a desert; her feasts were turned into mourning, her Sabbaths into a reproach, her honor into contempt. Her dishonor now grew as great as her glory; her exaltation was turned into mourning." (1Mac1:39-40) These descriptions may better express what some of us felt following the election, rather than the simple fear of where it was leading us as a nation. For sure this country has always been a sanctuary for those seeking freedom and opportunity to live their lives and faith. The womb also has always been a sanctuary for the fragile life of the unborn. Both seem now more threatened than ever by those who do not recognize the dignity of their origins.
Well, this is only to establishing the context of the passages that follow. But allow one further prelude. This time of defeat led explicitly to the most horrible of consequences: “According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers' necks. … Very great wrath came upon Israel." (1Mac.1:60-64) The image of children hanging from their mothers’ necks represents a threat that should not be forgotten and the gravity of an intrinsic evil already upon us. There is nothing so offensive than the destruction of innocence. This makes the image of the innocent Savoir hanging from a cross that much more powerful.
Standing Up for Faith, Family and God’s Law
The confrontation of Mattathias and his brothers with a royal officer enforcing the apostasy calls to mind the challenge that each Christian faces in confronting the culture of death. What is easier, more promising for material prosperity is the compromise of our faith and values. Standing up for those same values requires courage and a willingness to pay the price. The world in fact doesn’t expect us to stand, not for long. She seductively offers us so much to satisfy our desires. She flatters and promises wealth (or at least tax brakes) and popularity in the world if we give in. She even suggests lesser causes to fight (poverty and war) so to satisfy our desire to stand for something. She gets us to focus on ourselves and not on the most urgent and grave needs of others.
"You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts." (1Mac.2:17-18)
Conviction, courage and leadership mark the response of Mattathias. Human respect is overcome by respect for God and his Laws. The disappointments and challenges of their day did not dampen their spirits but rather inspired and energized their determination to remain faithful.
But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: "Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, everyone of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king's words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left." (1Mac2:19-22)
Real Zeal Acts
Strangely enough Mattathias’ steadfast stance and defiance of the threats to life and religion seem to spurn others to flaunt their proud divorce from the teachings and traditions of their fathers. They want to go with the flow and feel the security and affirmation of “what everyone else is doing”. Surely Mattathias could not understand such a submission to the world.
“When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein, according to the king's command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time he killed the king's officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.” (1Mac2:23-25)
While our circumstances are far from venting righteous anger by striking out with violence, frustration and anger can tear at our hearts. “How can so many Catholics and good Christians fail to stand up to such proposed evil?!”; “The sanctity of life and the aggression of abortion is the issue at hand, beyond compare with the other moral problems of our time!” Yet our answer must be firm and decisive. The strength and strategy employed to advance the cause of choice and moral relativism must be met with the bold and resolute moral backbone of Mattathias.
“He burned with zeal and his heart stirred.” Heartfelt zeal produces the response of one committed to defend and fight for sacred, innocent life. Mattathais stands tall and asks you: ‘Where is your zeal Christian soldier? Has your heart been stirred by the result of politics, cold and calculated agendas of death and Godless license, the state of our nation’s soul? If so, stand with me in faith and courage.’
Wake Up and Unite
Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: "Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!" Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town.
We are invited to come out, out of the shadows of silence and private religion to speak, teach and evangelize. We must follow Christian leadership and flee from the compromises of materialism, consumerism and so much human respect. But we must also be willing to leave behind our comforts and ease.
I have often described to men in spiritual talks a scene that I believe describes our world and the cultural battle at hand. Imagine looking up over your back yard on a warm summer afternoon. Beyond the trees and large rooftops, you see a frightening sight. A large band of barbarians is descending upon your neighborhood. They carry cruel weapons of destruction and death. What do you do? How do you respond? Do you sit there comfortable in your lazy-boy? Do you shrug it off: “someone else will fight them off…” Do you simply lock your doors and keep the kids at home for the day? Or do you send urgent word to your neighbors and organize a defense? Do you take up arms and protect your family, friends and neighbors? Do you care?
The barbarians are already in the streets was one man’s response. The anti-Christian values piped into our lives by internet porn, MTV vulgarity, ipods full of suggestive noise and the uncensored communication that reaches the hearts and lives of your children via so many high-tech highways… The culture of death is determined not so much to destroy us but rather to assimilate us, like the Gentiles preferred to assimilate the Jews.
Mattathias calls us to take up the challenge with the zeal of our hearts and the love of all that is sacred. This stance and the fight it requires will ultimately conquer. If we needed this sad state of affairs to wake up from our comfortable life, blessed be God!
The Honor to Fight
Judas Maccabeus took command of the resistance when his father Mattathias died:
"All his brothers and all who had joined his father helped him; they gladly fought for Israel. He extended the glory of his people. Like a giant he put on his breastplate; he bound on his armor of war and waged battles, protecting the camp by his sword. He was like a lion in his deeds, like a lion's cub roaring for prey." (1Mac.3:2-4)
The mark of a Christian is his joy. His brothers and their comrades “gladly fought” for their country. Rather than focus on the turmoil and evils of the day, the persecution and injustice (“Why should we live any longer?” 1Mac2:13), these men of God thought it a grace to fight for their God and country. And they fought with the deep joy of knowing that what they were doing was right.
Arm Yourselves for Battle
Scripture here paints the picture of a great warrior: “Like a giant he put on his breastplate”. The breastplate was the largest piece of armor a warrior donned. It protected his vital organs, especially his heart and lungs. The fight today requires both great courage and great endurance. Many have fought hard for the cause of unborn life now more than 35 years. This is a civil rights battle that will demand more efforts, more creativity, more years. Discouragement is not an option. “Arm yourselves and be courageous!” (1Mac.3:58)
St. Paul calls for a spiritual battle in his letter to the Ephesians. “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness." (Eph.6:12-14)
In the same breath he calls for both the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. We must first stand in the truth, a truth guaranteed by Christ to his Church (“the gates of hell will not prevail” and “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”). This truth frees us to live with righteousness. If we witness to truth by what we live, our words of truth become more credible.
Righteousness is to live the way of the Lord, holiness of life. St. Paul links it with faith, since righteousness is through faith in Christ. (Rom.3) Our primary defense and weapons (2Cor.6:4-8) in this battle will be a holiness of life made possible by our faith. An active faith that hungers and thirsts for righteousness, that commits us to truth and the effective communication of truth will secure all our efforts. Assured are both success (fulfillment)
and persecution. (Mt.5:6-10)
A Call to Renew the Temporal Order
The battle for the culture is all about righteousness. It is not about politics, nor media, nor ideologies. It is about God’s will, God’s plan, God’s Justice, God’s Kingdom. St. Paul is right, the battle is above all spiritual, but in this life we must breathe the spirit of holiness into our actions, our conversations and our culture.
The Church teaches that “Christ's redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel…. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience. “ (APOSTOLICAM ACTUOSITATEM Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity)
It is time to live Vatican II’s prophetic call pronounced nearly 45 years ago: “Since, in our own times, new problems are arising and very serious errors are circulating which tend to undermine the foundations of religion, the moral order, and human society itself, this sacred synod earnestly exhorts laymen-each according to his own gifts of intelligence and learning-to be more diligent in doing what they can to explain, defend, and properly apply Christian principles to the problems of our era in accordance with the mind of the Church.” (Ibid)
“We Are Supposed to be Surrounded”
The greatest enemy to be feared, after mortal sin itself, is discouragement. We may now feel outnumbered, weakened and at a supreme disadvantage. But this is where God does his best work. Like the Captain in “the Band of Brothers” who replies to a beaten and retreating soldier anxiously warning that he will be surrounded: “We are paratroopers; we are supposed to be surrounded.”
Multiple stories in the Old Testament demonstrate how God prefers fighting and conquering for his helpless people against all odds. Judas Maccabeus soon faces this kind of battle. His men find their small company challenged by an entire army. They complain, as we are tempted to do in these times:
"How can we, few as we are, fight against so great and so strong a multitude? And we are faint, for we have eaten nothing today." Judas replied, "It is easy for many to be hemmed in by few, for in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between saving by many or by few. It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from Heaven. They come against us in great insolence and lawlessness to destroy us and our wives and our children, and to despoil us; but we fight for our lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us; as for you, do not be afraid of them." (1Mac.3:17-22)
We must do more than protect ourselves, we must go out and fight. We go on the offensive with “the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God”. (Efs.6:17) We must know his Word (cfr. Oct. 08 Synod in Rome "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church"). Prayer and meditation on his word will give us the power to focus our own thoughts and words on God’s Truth, as well as finding the way to penetrate to the hearts and minds of those we hope to reach. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb.4:12)
Our “strength comes from heaven”. Our task is to first look to heaven, to pray, “to cry aloud to heaven” (1Mac.3:50) and to then to fight. We fight yes, for our families, for our country and especially for our children. We fight for our lives and for theirs. We flight for God’s laws. If we have faith, can we doubt that he will fail to crush the enemy culture before us and he did for Judas Maccabeus and the Isrealites? He did more in raising his --son from the dead. He will raise us.
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