There was a reason Mel Gibson picked on the book of Maccabees as a possible movie project after his tremendously successful Passion of the Christ. Be it the action, in war films like Braveheart or Hacksaw Ridge, blood and violence, (whether redemptively as) in the Passion, or (not so much, as) in Apocalypto, Maccabees has ingredients of all that would be a worthwhile contestant for a great Gibson film.
Ecstasy of St Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
The book recounts the resistance of the tiny Jewish people against the world-wide advance of Greek Empire. The Greek King, heir to Alexander the Great, is intent on Hellenising the world and in the process destroying any remnant of Jewish identity.The desire of all fallen men is to impose their will on others and remake them into their own image. The hero for most of the book is Judas Maccabees, who could have well filled out the shoes of Braveheart’s William Wallace or Gladiator’s Maximus Decimus.
Resisting the King, in our reading today, however, is not an army, not Judas (to whom this narrative opens), but a humble, and in all probability, an illiterate woman. The passage presents in graphic detail how each of her seven sons are tortured and killed before her eyes, after which she herself is killed. Each time, though, she encourages them to stay faithful to their Jewish identity and not weaken in their faith, fully knowing that she was signing their death warrant. How could any mother suffer such brutality? Why would she do this and even more, where did she find such strength? I would suggest that it was a deep knowledge that she was loved by a God greater than her torturer.
The Jews knew that their God was good and he loved them. But over time, they had to confront the question of whether this God was also powerful; powerful enough to save them in the face of the evil they faced. Love that was not powerful would be impotent, just a nice idea. And it is here that we encounter a verse which is foundational for a lot of our doctrine – we’ve unfortunately not covered that in our reading. The mother encourages one of the sons, saying, do you not realise that God created everything out of nothing (2 Macc 7:28)? This doctrine that God creates out of nothing (ex nihilo) is foundational to our theology. From that we can pretty much work out most of our doctrines.
Only a God who is omnipotent, all powerful can create out of nothing. Nothing means literally, no-thing. Empty space is not ‘nothing’. No-thing is not something we can imagine. In the stories of Greek mythology, one god destroys an evil god and the world comes to be formed out of the body of the slain god; the world and matter is created out of something evil. Their gods are never all powerful; there are other forces opposing them. And redemption becomes a matter of escaping the body which is usually not good. Not so, in Jewish and Christian understanding. Our God created everything there is, including the very matter out of which he creates, and he would say that it is good (Gen 1:31). He is not limited by the material he has. It also means that nothing forced or compelled God to create. He creates freely, out of love; he knew what he wanted to create and he created you and me. Irrespective of the circumstances of your past, the fact that you exist means you were created out of love, you were loved into being. And the fact of God creating out of nothing, means that everything is in his power, including all of history and the events we have no control over.
It is fascinating, that when the doctrine of ex nihilo first appears in the Scriptures, it is not pronounced by a great prophet like Moses, or a learned scribe like Ezra. It is pronounced by a woman of humble means – but one who certainly understood its power. She knew that there would be a resurrection and this was enough for her to be at peace in the midst of all this brutality. She would receive her sons back to herself. And they would have a new and glorious body in the resurrection.
Today, persecution of Christians is at an all-time high. But the Resurrection affects everyone’s lives: whether their limbs are being torn apart or they have gone through some kind of trauma or even the everyday fears with which people live. I recently came across something on the treatment of trauma. Apparently, healing does not go far enough with the victim only being able to talk about the event, powerful as that is. The body has experienced this trauma and somehow the body needs to be released, making it feel safe in that experience. And it is in the security of the love of another, that the body can be healed. In the resurrection, there will be a new and glorious body. A body which will be constituted wholly by love and untouched by sin and evil. After his resurrection, Jesus bore the scars of his wounds but they were glorious, a sign of his victory. Resurrection changes everything about how we understand and live our history. We are not tossed about by random events, but held in the hands of a loving God.
But where can you receive this love? Interestingly, in the gospel, the very situation the Sadducees pose to Jesus gives one possibility. The Sadducees are right in that marriage fulfils a very important human need for children (something not well recognised today). But marriage is also the training ground for love. When people first fall in love, with all its excitement and passion, it is rarely the experience of love in all its depths. More often than not, what they are in love with is a version of themselves which they see in the other. And the crisis usually comes as they discover that the other is really different from themselves. They then have a choice. They can receive the other as gift; or like the Emperor, try to impose their will, remake them in their own image. But when I receive the love of another, who is truly another and not some figment of my imagination, then I can become myself. And in being loved, I find that history – my history – is not simply a series of random events, but holds meaning for me. I can face the world without fear.
But anyone who has tried to live the promise of marriage will also know that they are too weak to keep it in full; the promise and the full potential of this love can be fulfilled only in the new life, by the power of God. Eternity is not the end of our relationships, only the beginning – there will be no sexual union but that is only a faint shadow of the fullness of love in store in eternity. In the Divine Comedy, as Dante completes his purgation, he finds that he has new senses and he sees Beatrice, his beloved, more beautiful than anything she was on earth. Because now he sees her in the light of God’s love which makes her fully who she is and she reflects that love back to him. Somehow, the mother and her sons knew this. And they showed that in front of the emperor who seemed to wield all power on earth, what they had was greater. The Love we are given in the Eucharist is greater than anything we need to face on earth. And anything we will face this coming week.