I am sure you already know that today, in the new, Ordinary Form, calendar, is the feast of St. Alphonsus Maria de’Liguori, the bishop and doctor of the Church so famous for his contributions to moral theology.
However, today is also the feast of the Seven Holy Maccabee brothers. They are listed in the Martyrologium Romanum. Here is their entry:
2. Commemoratio passionis sanctorum septem fratrum martyrum, qui Antiochiae in Syria, sub Antiocho Epiphane rege, propter legem Domini invicta fide servatam, morti crudeliter traditi sunt cum matre sua, in singulis quidem filiis passa, sed in omnibus coronata, sicut in secundo libro Maccabaeorum narratur. Item commemoratur sanctus Eleazarus, unus de primoribus scribarum, vir aetate provectus, qui in eadem persecutione, illicitam carnem manducare propter vitae amorem respuens, gloriosissimam mortem magis quam odiosam vitam complectens, voluntarie praeivit ad supplicium, magnum virtutis relinquens exemplum.
Maybe some of you good readers can produce your flawless English versions for those whose Latin is less smooth.
Who were the Maccabee brothers?
They may be models for our own day, given what is coming.
The Maccabees were Jews who rebelled against the Hellenic Seleucid dynasty in the time of Antiochus V Eupator. The Maccabees founded the Hasmonean dynasty and fought for Jewish independence in Israel from 165-63 BC.
In 167 BC, Mattathias revolted against the Greek occupiers by refusing to worship the Greek gods. He killed a Hellenizing Jew who was willing to offer a sacrifice to the Greek gods. Mattathias and his five sons fled to the wilderness of Judea. Later Mattathias’s son Judas Maccabaeus led an army against the Seleucids and won. He entered Jerusalem, cleansed the Temple, and reestablished Jewish worship.
Hanukkah commemorates this victory.
In the period 167-164 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163) killed and sold thousands of Jews into slavery. He violated the Jewish holy sites and set up an altar to Zeus in the Holy of Holies (1 Maccabees 1:54; Daniel 11:31). The people revolted and Antiochus responded with slaughter. He required under penalty of death that Jews sacrifice to the gods and abandon kosher laws. “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment” (Hebrews 11:35-36). A chief of the scribes, Eleazar, an old man, did not flee. Pork was forced on him, into his mouth, he spat it out and was then condemned to death.
St. Ambrose, in his work On Jacob and the Blessed Life recounts Eleazar’s death along with the deaths of seven sons of a mother. The work is filled with Neo-platonic and Stoic themes, especially about virtue theory. Ambrose goes through all their deaths in detail, making commentary on them for what they meant.
The mother is venerated by the Greeks as St. Solomnis.
In these scenes recounted by Ambrose from IV Maccabees, the mother is being tried by being forced to watch each of here sons executed in different ways, eldest to youngest. She urges them not to give in. Ambrose thus explores the theme of how God chooses the weak and makes them strong. The ancient “priest” Eleazar should be weak and infirm due to age, but he is a tower of strength. The mother of the seven boys should be weak by nature but is unshakable. The sons are not to be moved to infidelity, even the youngest.
Here is a taste of Ambrose in De Iacob et vita beata II, 12:
The words of the holy woman return to our minds, who said to her sons: “I gave birth to you, and poured out my milk for you: do not lose your nobility.” Other mothers are accustomed to pull their children away from martyrdom, not to exhort them to martyrdom. But she thought that maternal love consisted in this, in persuading her sons to gain for themselves an eternal life rather than an earthly life. And thus the pius mother watched the torment of her sons … But her sons were not inferior to such a mother: they urged each other on, speaking with one single desire and, I would say, like an unfurling of their souls in a battle line.
Very cool image.
The tongues of the Maccabees are venerated in the Dominican Church of St. Andrew (Sankt Andreas Kirche) in Cologne (Köln), Germany. The same church has the body of St Albert the Great in the crypt, and the chasuble in which his body was clothed at burial (removed when he was moved to the present location). More HERE.
And, to bring this to completion, today is the Anniversary of the Dedication of the beautiful Roman Basilica S. Pietro in vincoli,…
“The Maccabee relics were later brought to Constantinople and Rome where they are honored even today at San Pietro in Vincoli. According to a legend, the Maccabee relics should have been received by Archbishop Reinald of Dassel at the same time when he (Reinald) should have received those of the holy Three Kings at Milan from the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa; in 1164 (the relics) were transported to Cologne.”
In fact, there is an ancient Roman sarcophagus in the crypt. This sarcophagus is supposed to contain the relics of the Holy Maccabees, translated to S. Pietro in vincoli by Pope Pelagius (+561).