Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: Do Not Be Afraid!!
The first reading for this Sunday is intense. It describes the suffering of some of the martyrs at the time of the Maccabees. A little explanation is necessary. The story really begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great about 330 years before Christ. Not only did Alexander conquer the military of the nations of the world, he conquered the culture of the nations. Greek philosophy, Greek art, Greek religion, all things Greek became the new way of the world. Parts of the world adapted quickly to this. Parts of the world adapted gradually. Most of the known world was Hellenized, became Greek, though. That is with the exception of the Hebrews. The Jews held on to their faith and life.
Now when Alexander died, his empire was divided up among twelve counselor/generals. The Jews were in that part of the empire governed by the Seleucid dynasty. This became one of the largest of the Greek kingdoms. It extended all the way to India, Persia, Turkey, as well as Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Perhaps, the empire was so large that the Jews were left alone, at least until about 165 BC. A new King, Antioches Epiphanes decided that everyone in his domains should worship the Greek gods and follow Greek practices. In Palestine many of the Jews were ecstatic. They were tired of being left out of what they called modern society. They wanted to be Greek, part of the mesh of the Hellenistic culture. They built gymnasiums where they would exercise in the rather immodest Greek style. This was very much against the Law of Moses. The men even covered over the distinct male marking of their faith. They rejected the Law of God. They were now modern men and women. They built Greek temples, worshiped Greek gods, dressed and acted like Greeks. Basically, they became Greeks in Jewish bodies. Antioches had a statue of the Greek god Zeus put right on the altar in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Right there, in the holiest part of the Temple where a chosen priest would only enter once a year, right there on the most sacred altar of Israel, Antioches put a statue of a pagan god.
But there were faithful Jews who were appalled. They would refer to the statue of Zeus as the abominable desecration. They refused to give in to the emperor’s decrees. Antioches then issued a proclamation that anyone who kept the Jewish practices and did not worship the Greek gods would be tortured and put to death. In our first reading from the Second Book of Maccabees we hear about these sufferings. It is a grisly account. It is also accurate. Second Maccabees became one of the favorite books of the early Christians. They would choose Christ and his Kingdom rather than give in to the so-called modern yet pagan world of the Roman empire. Like the Jews in Maccabees they also would choose to suffer rather than reject Christianity. And they did suffer. No pain, no fear, not even death could dissuade Peter and Paul, and all the apostles, who were killed, some, like Bartholomew in horrible ways. From that old man, Ignatius of Antioch, to the 12 year old girl, Agnes, to those two new mothers, Perpetua and Felicity, and all the martyrs, from the earliest days of the Church to those dying now for the faith under the persecution of radical Islam and other agents of the devil, witnesses, martyrs, continue to choose Christ over death.
So what does this have to do with us? Unless the United States is conquered by a brutal people determined to persecute and kill all who do not renounce their faith, we are not going to be put in the position of the Hebrew and Christian martyrs. We will not have to make a choice between our faith or torture. But we will still be persecuted. We are persecuted now. People continue to belittle our faith and Christian lifestyle. People mock us for exalting in our Catholicism. They did this to Jesus, too. Look at the Gospel reading for today. Jesus was belittled for preaching that there is life after death. The Sadducees made fun of Jesus. “So, there is life after death, huh? Well, how could that be? What if a woman had seven husbands, and they all died before her. Whose wife would she be when she died? So there, we’re a lot smarted than you Jesus. We’ve got you backed into a corner.” Jesus very nicely responded, in our words, “You guys are clueless. You have no idea what the afterlife is like, the spiritual, heaven.”
Perhaps the Sadducees’ method of argument sound familiar. There are many who belittle people rather than consider if there is any truth to their beliefs. Most of us have experienced this when we profess our faith. Someone says to us “So, you believe in the Trinity, prove it. So you believe in the spiritual, prove it. Tear a body to pieces and see if you can find the soul. Your Catholicism, your Christianity, is just child’s stories.”
Jesus did not back down. He would also suffer being scorned by others for his faith. He would be crucified for his faith.
We cannot back down either. Because so many around us do not respect our faith, or respect us as Christians or as Catholics, we are often called to put up with their scorn for the sake of the faith.
So, you sit down at lunch with work companions or schoolmates, and someone says to you, “You don’t really believe all the Catholic garbage do you? I mean, you can’t really believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ?” Or maybe they come up with the anti-Catholic bigotry of the last century, “You Catholics worship Mary. You have statues in your churches. Aren’t you are really a bunch of idolaters.” Or maybe they lay into our morality, “You don’t really believe that you have to put others before yourselves, do you? Get real, will you. That’s not how the world works. You don’t really believe that the physical expression of love belongs only in marriage, do you?” and so forth. It takes a lot of courage for us to say, “This is my faith. I am completely convinced. I don’t ask you to believe my faith, just to respect me for having it.”
That statement will most likely be followed by one of two things: silence or more scorn. And right here we have the great fear that confronts us. Our great fear is not torture or death. Our great fear is that we won’t fit in, that people won’t accept us, that people won’t like us because of our faith. Look, we have been and will be belittled for our faith. We are being mocked right now for our faith. The mockery of the world fits the pattern of its immorality. The early Christians were told to be in the world but not of the word. That applies to us too. We are not of the world. We have chosen to be holy. Holiness means to be set aside, separate for God. We have chosen to be different from those elements of our society that exalt in what is basically a pagan lifestyle. These people can’t stand our holiness. Evil will always attack good. In fact, when we are attacked for what we believe or how we live our Christianity, then we know that we are doing something very right, we are giving witness to the Kingdom. But we are afraid. We are afraid that we are not fitting in. We fear not being accepted even though we freely choose Christ.
St. Paul was aware of this. It is as though he speaks directly to each of us in today’s second reading from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians. “Pray that you might be delivered from perverse and wicked people. For not all have faith. Be faithful to the Lord and the Lord will be faithful to you. He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” Paul’s prayer, and our prayer is “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and the endurance of Christ.”
St. John Paul the Great told us from the very beginning of his papacy, “Do not be afraid.” We cannot be afraid of what others are thinking about us. We cannot be afraid of what others might say about us. We cannot be afraid of what others might do to us. Our only fear should be the fear that we cave into the world, reject Christ, or in any way push Him aside.
With St. Paul, we pray, “May the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God the Father who loves us and gives us everlasting encouragement and hope, fortify our hearts and strengthen us.”