Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The first reading (2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 9-14) sounds like it could be something that could come to pass today. It happened a few centuries before Christ. A general under Alexander the Great, conquered Israel and exerted Greek control and culture upon the area. It was political domination and imposed Greek way of being on the Jews; it was very harsh.
They desecrated the Temple which was the most sacred place for the Jews. They put their own symbols and idols in it and made a Greek style gym where they would exercise in the nude, which was very offensive to the people. They made the Jews cover their circumcision marks and eat pork. It was a very aggressive political domination and appears like an ethnic cleansing.
A recent comparison could be the suffering of Poland in the last century. First they were overrun by the Nazis from the West and then after World War II from Russia and oppressed brutally for decades.
So these bullies came to a Jewish town and were forcing people to eat pork. Mattathias was very zealous against them and when he saw one of the Jews giving in to the pressure to eat pork he would descend upon them and kill them. He fled to the hills and started the Maccabean uprising which eventually freed the country from this situation. If you want to read something of interest in the Old Testament it is a good place to start. The Maccabees cleansed the Temple very reverently, re-dedicated it and the feast which commemorates that event, Hanukkah, happens around our Christmas.
So the first reading very graphically tell us about the mother of seven Maccabee sons who were arrested, tortured and tried to make them eat pork. Starting with the eldest they were tortured and killed in front of their mother as she encouraged them to be faithful to their God.
Just a few years ago a group of Coptic (Egyptian) Christians were captured by ISSIS in Libya where they went to look for work. They were dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night, held captive for many days and were asked to renounce their faith, which they refused to do. They were taken to a beach on the Mediterranean with men in orange jumpsuits, which imitated the uniforms that ISSIS men wore in jail in Guantanamo Bay. They were brought to the Mediterranean specifically so that the blood of the victims would be in the same water where the remains of Bin Laden were put. They were asked to deny their faith again and when they refused they cut off their heads. Many spoke the name of Christ as they died.
There were twenty Christians but twenty-one men died that day. A man from Chad was working with these Coptic men and was so impressed with the way they died that he said their God was now his God, and he was martyred with them.
Jose Sanchez del Rio is a recent saint from Mexico and was part of the Cristero army in the 1920s that was resisting the persecution of the priests and nuns by the Mexican government. This fourteen year old boy was captured, put in prison and tortured. They lacerated his feet and made him walk several miles to a cemetery where they shot him but didn’t kill him. In front the grave they dug for him they asked him again to deny his faith and he refused. They shot him again and while dying he cried out: Vivo Cristo Rey, Vivo Nuestra Senora Guadalupe, long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The story of the Maccabees is terrible, cruel and an amazing story of toughness and courage. And it also tells us why they were willing to die like this: because they expected to live a life beyond this one. Under the pain of so much cruelty if their life here was the only one that mattered then why not give in? But they were witnesses to the existence of another world, a higher world where the supernatural is the real world. Our world here is only a shadow of the eternal one.
These men in Libya, Egypt and in Mexico were witnesses to this other world. They said very clearly that God will lift them up to live again forever and they will receive their bodies again. They bet their lives on heaven, not on this world.
They accepted death rather then renounce their faith. Are they crazy? I would argue that those who accepted death were more clear-sighted, more religiously alive, and more awake than anyone else. Reflect on this. All the martyrs are witnesses to the existence of God and to another life. We are all called to be witnesses of our faith, of what we believe. Maybe we will not be killed for the faith, but each one of us is called to be a witness to those around us by the way we live our lives. You can be a witness by speaking of God and what he has done for you and at the right moment invite a friend to come to church with you. Someone did that for me which is the reason I am here.