Maccabees and Prayers for the Dead
The Choice Between Virtue and Vice (Frans Francken)

Maccabees and Prayers for the Dead

The first reading for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time is from the Second Book of Maccabees. First and Second Maccabees are sections of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament that we don’t meet up with much. I thought I’d like to present them to you today and to make references to a main teaching found in these books.

First and Second Maccabees are among those books found in the Catholic Bible but not in many of the Protestant Bibles. We Catholics believe that they are the Word of God. Many other Christians do not believe this. The reason for this discrepancy goes back to the end of the first Christian century. At that time there were two listings or canons of books of the Hebrew Scriptures followed by the Jewish scholars. One listing, called the Palestinian canon did not have all the books found in the other listing called the Alexandrian canon. From the very beginning of the Church, the longer Alexandrian listing of books was followed. This lasted all the way to the sixteenth century, when the Protestant reformers chose the shorter Palestinian list for the Protestant bible. Therefore, First and Second Maccabees, Sirach, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit and sections of other books are not found in the Protestant Bible but have been recognized as the Word of God by the Church from the first century.

“Why is this important?,” you might ask. Well, these books of the Bible have numerous references to the resurrected life and to prayers for the dead. This was a belief that the Protestant Reformers did not want to emphasize due to Catholic excesses, namely people selling indulgences. Unfortunately, throwing out these books was very much throwing the baby out with the bath water. To preserve the Word of God, they threw out sacred scripture.

The two books of Maccabees speak about the times during the Jewish revolt against Syria in the second century before Jesus. These were the days when the Syrian King, Antioches, decided to unify his extensive Kingdom by demanding that all the people of his Kingdom worship the pagan gods of Greece. Although Antioches was King of Syria, he was descended from the Greeks who conquered under Alexander the Great. The whole Middle East was embracing Greek culture, philosophy and lifestyle. People were building Greek gymnasiums throughout the region. Pagan rituals, sacrifices and orgies were seen to be new and modern. However, there was a pocket of resistence to this new way and to the King’s orders in Palestine among some of the Jewish people. When Antioches learned about this he sent his soldiers to enforce his laws. They took over the temple and constructed a statue of the god Zeus on the altar in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. This was an area so sacred to the Jewish people that only one chosen priest could enter it and then only once a year. It was here in the Holy of Holies that one of these priests, named Zechariah, would learn that his wife, Elizabeth would have a baby whom he was to name John. The curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple would be torn in two during the earthquake when Jesus died on the cross.

Anyway, returning to our little biblical history, about 175 years before Christ Antioches’ soldiers desecrated the Temple. Now, many of the Jews gave in to the Syrians. We read in First Maccabees “In those days there appeared in Israel men who were breakers of the law, and they seduced many people, saying: ‘Let us go and make an alliance with the Gentiles all around us; since we separated from them, many evils have come upon us.'” Others, though, refused to compromise their principles. These people suffered greatly. First Maccabees speaks about mothers who allowed their sons to be circumcised being brutalized along with their babies. “Many in Israel were determined and resolved in their hearts not to eat anything unclean; they preferred to die rather than to be defiled with unclean food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Terrible affliction was upon Israel.” The Second Book of Maccabees detailed the sufferings and deaths of those who died for their faith. You can understand how the early Church treasured Maccabees as an inspiration to endure persecution for the faith.

Among those who resisted the Syrian King were a group of people living in Modein and led by Mattathias, a faithful Jewish priest. Mattathias wept for the destruction of the Temple and the terrors the Jewish people were suffering. All who agreed with him joined him in Modein. Now the King sent an envoy to Modein to bribe Mattathias to go along with the majority of the then known world. They all gathered in the presence of the envoy who demanded that Mattathias offer sacrifice to a pagan idol. He refused. Just then, some well known Jews came forward and offered sacrifice. Mattathias was enraged. He killed the envoy and the unfaithful Jews and began a revolt against Syrian. Mattathias was elderly and died soon after this, but the revolt was continued by his five sons, led by the strongest of them, Judas, known as Maccabeus. The First Book of Maccabees speaks about the battles of Judas, and his conquest of the Syrians. When Jerusalem fell, the Jews spent eight days cleaning the Temple from its pagan impurities. The eight day purification of the Temple is still celebrated in the Jewish Feast of Hanukkah. Thus the eight candles on the Jewish Menorah.

One of the battles that Judas engaged the enemy in was the battle against Gorgias the Idumean. Although Judas won the battle, many of his soldiers were killed. When their companions went to bury them, they found that each dead soldier was wearing pagan amulets under his tunic. It was clear why they died. Judas then took a collection up among his soldiers and sent an offering to Jerusalem so that sacrifices and prayers might be offered up for his men who had sinned and fallen. It is here that we read an important verse for us during this, the Month of All Souls, “In doing this Judas acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.”

The Books of Maccabees present a firm belief in the eternal life of those who have lived for the Lord and a belief in praying for those who have died. We continue this in our Church. We use the term, purgatory, or place of cleansing, as the state of those waiting full entrance into the love of the Lord. Our prayers for the dead are prayers that they be united soon to God in his love.

Once, a priest of our diocese was asked, “Do you believe in purgatory?” He answered, “Not only do I believe in purgatory, I’m counting on it.” Our lives are fragile. A hurricane comes and ten thousand of us die without any warning. Even when we have an idea that our lives are coming to an end due to a devastating illness like cancer, we always die sooner than we expect and sooner than we would like.

We are all imperfect. We need healing from the results of our sins, even if these sins are forgiven. The results of sin do not just go away because the sin is forgiven. For example, a man might leave his wife and family and move in with another woman. His wife might be near a nervous breakdown. His children in turmoil. If ten years later he seeks forgiveness for his actions, he can be forgiven not just by God but also by his wife. But, the results of his sins remain. The children grew up devastated. Their father was not there when they needed him. His wife is still suffering the results of the end of their marriage. The sin is forgiven, but the effects of the sin remains.

During our lives we approach the Lord seeking the healing for the results of our sins. When our lives on earth have ended we depend on the prayers of those still living here to continue to ask God to heal the results of sin in our lives. The priest who said, “I don’t just believe in purgatory, I am counting on it,” was seeking healing from the community for the effects of his own sins.

This is the month of All Souls. We have done a disservice to our dead by canonizing them all, by deciding that no matter what their lives may have been like, they must they must be in heaven right now. It is a disservice because the faithful departed need our prayers. They need us to offer the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross for them–to have Masses said for them. They need us to pray the rosary asking Mary to speak to her son for our loved ones. They need us to keep the memory of their goodness alive and before the Lord.

The Books of Maccabees tell us that it is a good thing to pray for the dead. During the Month of November, we pray for our loved ones that they might be healed of the effects of sin in their lives and be admitted into the eternal love of the Lord.

And so we pray in beautifully poetic language:

Eternal Rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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Written by
Msgr Joseph Pellegrino