Last weekend during Mass, as I listened to the first reading, I was struck by the actions of a faith-filled family in the second book of Maccabees. It was a story that I had heard countless times before, but as I sat in my pew, I could see some of the reactions of my students. Seeing the shock and horror on their faces as they listened, I found myself really considering the words.
In the seventh chapter of the second book of Maccabees, a mother and her seven sons are faced with the possibility of their own torture and death. They know that their end with be exceedingly painful, and they also know that it is easily avoidable: all they have to do is eat pork. But the mother and her sons are Jewish, and according to Jewish law, pork is an unclean meat. Rather than disobeying God by consuming the unclean meat, the mother watches each of her sons as they are tortured and killed before finally being murdered herself. This woman and her children could have avoided death so easily; all they had to do was eat a little bit of meat. Instead, they chose to die.
In our modern world, the notion of dying rather than eating meat probably seems absolutely absurd. As one of my students put it, “It was just plain dumb.” This mother and her sons were tortured and condemned to a horrendous death, and all they needed to do was eat pork. When I put the choice to my students, the consensus was clear: they should have eaten the stupid pig. Eating pig was certainly a better option than dying. And were they really going to be punished by God for eating pig meat?
I think there are two primary reasons why my students, and the vast majority of our society, can’t understand why a person would choose death over eating a pig. Our culture cannot accept that anything exists beyond what can be seen, heard, and felt. Pork is just pork. Bread and wine is just bread and wine. Our bodies are just bodies. A fetus is just a fetus. If anything is going to be imbued in an object, it’s because we did it ourselves. The pork is only unclean because we have accepted the words of the Torah. The bread and wine only can be considered Christ’s Body and Blood if we believe that it is. Our bodies only have the meaning that we choose to instill in them. A fetus is just a bunch cells until the woman carrying those cells calls it a baby. All of these things- the pork, the bread and wine, our bodies, the fetus- are just “stuff.” They have no innate meaning, but only that which we have given them.
And as easy as it is to imbue an item with meaning, we can remove that meaning from the material object with just as little effort. We’re going to commit a grievous sin if we consume the unclean pork? Just start thinking that the pork is just meat, just something that can be eaten. We don’t want to ostracize our fallen away brother or sister who is not prepared to receive the Eucharist? Well, it might be Christ’s Body and Blood for you, but surely it’ll revert to bread and wine for them. We feel like a man living in a woman’s body? Well, our bodies don’t mean anything anyway, so we just need to make it resemble what we feel on the inside. We no longer want the life that is growing within us? Call it a bunch of cells, or worse, a foreign object, and just flush it from our bodies. The choice becomes so easy when there is no inherent meaning in anything, when everything is just matter.
If the pork is just meat, it does sound absolutely absurd to die rather than just eating it. If the pork was just meat, I would eat it too. But the pork is not just meat, just as the Eucharist is not just bread and wine, our bodies are not just meaningless matter, or a fetus is not just a clump of cells. Everything is capable of pointing towards something outside itself. The Catholic Church is filled with material things that have abilities beyond themselves. Water has the power to remove original sin. Bread and wine is capable of allowing us to become one with God himself. The spoken word has the power to turn bread and wine into Jesus Christ’s Body and Blood. We of all people should realize that just as water can be more than water and bread more than bread, pork can be more than pork.
In Jewish culture (and in Christian culture as well), someone who is unclean could not be holy. In the same way that we Catholics believe that one who is enslaved to sin is not holy (they can become holy through transformation, but not as they are), the Jews believe that one who is unclean cannot be holy, and only that which is holy can stand to be in the presence of God. That’s why the Jews have so many cleansing rituals; their purpose was to make clean what was unclean, to make holy what was impure. The Jews also believe that pigs are unclean animals, and therefore any meat that comes from a pig is also unclean. By consuming such meat, the Jews would have made themselves unclean, would have made themselves impure and thus disconnected from God. For the Jewish woman and her seven sons, eating pork was akin to severing their connection to God. That’s how damaging such an action was for them. So in a very real sense, the woman and her children were not just choosing between death and pork; they were choosing between bodily death and separation from God. They were choosing between their own lives and a relationship with God Himself. Faced with such a choice, they chose God.
And that leads us directly into the second reason why Americans today don’t understand the choice that this woman and her sons made. Even if we can accept that the pork might have been more than just meat, might have had the power to make a person unclean, we still cannot fathom how a person could be willing to die for their faith. We cannot fathom how a person could be willing to die for anything really. It’s part of the reason why we cannot understand why Muslim jihadists are willing to commit suicide in order to murder tens, hundreds, even thousands of people. If given the possibility of life, why wouldn’t they choose to live? Why would they choose to die? What could possibly be worth our death?
Most people would say nothing. Many of us do not have faith in anything strong enough to make us willing to die for it. It’s why most of my students blanch when I tell them about the early Christian martyrs. They can’t understand why anyone would agree to be burned alive, or eaten by animals, or skinned alive when all they had to do to avoid such a fate was tell a little lie, even if that lie is a denial of Christ Jesus. If you have the ability to save your own skin (sometimes literally), I’m sure Jesus will understand if you tell a little fib.
But it’s not just a little fib. It is a betrayal of the very Person who created us, gave us life, and saved us from sin and death. It is a lie of the worst sort. If God ever did the same to us, if He ever denied that He believed in us, we would simply cease to exist. The martyrs of our Church recognized that such a lie was the ultimate betrayal of the One who had given them life. They also understood that this life that they had been given ultimately belonged to God; if He wanted that life back, it was His to take. They also believed that death was not the worst thing that could happen to a person. Sin was. Eternal death and damnation were. Bodily death only had the power to reunite them with the God that they loved so much, that they were willing to give their lives for.
Many of us do not understand such passion, do not understand such commitment and dedication. We can barely understand how one person might be led to give his life for another man or woman; we cannot even begin to fathom how he might give his life for someone that he cannot even see. If we’re going to make such a sacrifice, we need some promise that it’ll be worth our while. It’s difficult for us to imagine giving our lives for something that we cannot see.
We have all sorts of believers in our country. We have those who only believe on Christmas and Easter, or else on Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday. We have those who only believe when they want or need something, or else when they’re in a bad place in their lives. We have those who believe that their faith does not extend beyond attending Mass every Sunday and bringing their children to CCD. We have those who believe that their faith lives and their moral lives are not related in the least. We have those who live for Christ, who give their lives to the service of God. And we have those who die for Christ, who give their lives as a sacrifice in honor of God. We can all identify ourselves on this continuum of faith, but until we realize that there really are things worth dying for, we will never reach the level of the martyrs. And even if we are never called to literally die for the faith, for our belief in Jesus Christ, we are all still called to have the faith of the martyrs. Because this is the faith that enabled Paul to say, “If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!