Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time

(I Maccabees 4:36-37.52-59, Lucas 19:45-48)

The first reading today describes the origins of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. Some treat this feast as the Jewish Christmas because it is celebrated around the same time of year with special attention to children. However, its significance to Jews seems as thin as a pencil in comparison to the meaning of Jesus’ birth to Christians.

As we have heard for the last week, the Maccabees clan resisted the reforms of the Seleucid (Syrian) king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The king tried to impose pagan customs on the people to the extent of desecrating the Temple with an altar to Zeus. After eight years of outrage, Mattathias Maccabeus and his sons rebelled. They rallied faithful Jewish forces behind them to oust the occupiers. In the passage today Mattathias’ son Judas leads the rededication of the Temple and declares an annual celebration which Jews observe today as Hanukkah.

In the gospel we find Jesus performing a vaguely similar cleansing of the Temple. The situation, of course, is very different but it is the same zeal for the holy that impels Jesus to drive out the vendors. Both readings remind us of the centrality of a consecrated place to worship. We might praise God anywhere and should pray wherever we find ourselves. But formerly the Temple and now the synagogue for Jews and the church for Christians have unique importance. They are the designated places of encounter with God hallowed by the prayers of forbearers in many cases for ages.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Memorial of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, religious

(I Maccabees 2:15-29; Luke 19:41-44)

With secure ways to imprison violent convicts most Western countries and many American states have abandoned capital punishment for most crimes. The exception to this rule is treason which still carries the death penalty in states like Michigan, the first English-speaking jurisdiction to ban it for other felonies. These facts provide context to understanding the two killings that shock sensitive readers in the passage from I Maccabees today.

Mattathias takes the lives of a Jew who was offering an illegitimate sacrifice and of the king’s messenger, probably not Jewish, who is promoting the abominable sacrifices. At least the death of his first victim is mandated by the Law (Deuteronomy 13:7-10). But both killings should be taken as legitimate execution. Just as some contemporary jurisdictions treat treason as the only capital crime, sacrifice to idols in ancient Israel is uniquely offensive. It violates the Covenant in a way that not only affronts the Lord but diminishes the faith of the people, which is considered necessary for Israel’s survival.

We must not commend actions such as Mattathias’ if done today; nevertheless, we should be cautious about condemning the Jewish hero. Jesus never faces such a critical situation although he does use force in cleansing the Temple. It is his teaching, however, that inclines us to shy away from capital punishment. He implores us to love our enemy, which does not necessarily exclude putting him to death, but certainly suggests it. Capital punishment, as the Church teaches, is a penalty of last resort when the common good is genuinely and severely threatened.