Some years back, a student of the University of Tulsa had asked me about buying a Bible—I’d mentioned something about complete and incomplete versions of the Bible. So, I cautioned her to be sure she buys a Catholic Bible. As expected, she asked what the difference was. The answer which should benefit those who do not know is that Protestant Bibles often do not contain all the books of the Bible.
During the Protestant Reformation, one of the teachings that the protesters rejected was the doctrine of purgatory. Their rejection of purgatory meant that any book of the Bible that referred to prayers for the dead were rejected. Among the books thrown out were the First and Second Maccabees. [There were other reasons, though, why the deuterocanonical books were rejected]. Our first reading today is taken from the Second Book of Maccabees and there’s a history behind the book which deserves our attention.
Back in the second century BC, Syria had conquered Palestine. The king of Syria named Antiochus imposed Greek culture and paganism on the Jews. He burned copies of the Torah, abolished the Jewish law, and forbade Sabbath observance. Some practices like circumcision attracted a death penalty. As a final assault, King Antiochus erected a statue of the Greek god, Zeus at the Holy of Holies—the inner court of the Temple of Jerusalem. In addition, he forced every Jew to eat pork, which Jewish custom forbade—for Jews consider pigs unclean. But the people were forced to eat pork sacrificed to a pagan god inside the Temple of Jerusalem. All through the land altars were erected to Zeus and the people were forced to worship it.
The seven brothers in today’s first reading, together with their mother, were arrested and commanded by the king to eat pork. Because they refused the order of the king, one by one, they were put to death. The fourth son, as he was dying, made reference to his hope of being raised from the dead.
The oppression of the Jews was later challenged by a certain Jewish priest named Mattathias. Together with some Jewish soldiers, Mattathias led a revolt against Antiochus. After the battles, with faith in being raised from the dead, and urged on by Mattathias, soldiers offered prayers for their fallen comrades. The books of Maccabees report great suffering among the Jewish people but also tell us about prayers for the dead. The reading fits perfectly the Church’s intention for the month of November when we pray for the faithful departed. It also falls in line with our nation’s celebration of Veteran’s Day.
The assumption by some Protestants and other groups that once someone dies, he or she goes straight to heaven is brazen and should be taken with caution. Yes, we should be cautious about canonizing our departed relatives who may still need our prayers to bring them to final purification. Purgatory is a spiritual state of final cleansing in the blood of Jesus, which many souls will need to unite themselves completely with the death of Christ for them. While in this body, we lack the spiritual insight to appreciate concretely the meaning of our salvation in Christ. Stripped of the body, we stand a better chance of acceding to the prize of our salvation, just as correction centers help some prisoners understand their crime better and seek amendment. We often hear reports of prisoners pardoned on the grounds of good behavior. Though it requires much more than good behavior to be in heaven, for heaven to make any sense, it has to be a place of reward for a life of faith and righteousness. The fact that in this world virtue often goes unrewarded and vice unpunished leaves one wondering: “Why be good, especially when it is hard, if it makes no difference in the long run?” Heaven has to be a sure reward for a life of faith for which our faithful departed yearn.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo