Memorial of Saint Cecilia, virgin and martyr
(II Maccabees 7:1.20-31; Luke 19:11-28)
One of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century was completed on December 10, 1948. On that day the United Nations overcame cultural and ideological barriers to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, the system of rights and responsibilities has not always been honored by its signees. Even the United States for a number of years after the declaration’s passage permitted widespread racial discrimination.
One right at the very core of the freedoms expressed in the Universal Declaration is that of practicing one’s religious beliefs. Taken seriously, religion is not a personal choice much less a whimsical fancy, but the following of one’s conscience where God speaks to the person. It is also constructive of a good society. All religions worthy of the name should guide their adherents to virtue. Where religion is repressed, on the other hand, rebellion follows discontent and disruption of peace.
The pious story in today’s first reading tells of a vicious ruler who tries to suppress the Jewish religion. Evidently many Jews went along with the barbarism, but not all nor, perhaps, even the majority. Those who did buy into the tyranny possibly thought, like many do today, that religion does not matter as long as there is food on one’s table. The mother and her seven sons knew better. Because they believed that violating a commandment of God is worse than death, they willingly accepted the latter. Their sacrifice anticipated that of Jesus who likewise died in obedience to God and that of St. Cecilia, a third century Roman martyr, whom we remember especially today. However, Jesus’ martyrdom was greater in a real sense than all others. Although he lived a completely righteous life according to the tenets of Jewish belief, he suffered not just the outrageous decision of the political regime but the contempt of the religious leaders in his land.