Being absolutely honest, when I was reading about the seven brothers who had been tortured and eventually murdered because of their refusal to eat pork, I thought it was ridiculous. Personally I’ve always had a problem with comprehending reasons behind the making of religious rules concerning food. Many of us still remember, and many of us still practise, meatless Fridays as our traditional way of fasting as though handed down from time immemorial. But not so long ago, many simply couldn’t afford meat on any day of the week, and every day was meatless, so actually that tradition was reserved to the minority of the better-off. Sometimes religious zeal can be ill-directed.
However, that murder of the seven brothers was not about forbidden food. This passage is part of the much wider struggle of the Jews defending their national and religious identity. The successors of Alexander the Great tried to unify their subdued nations and tribes under the standard of Greek culture. The uprooting of local traditions and religions was an essential part of that process. It was being achieved by cultural attraction to the Greek way of life, or by gentle persuasion fortified by thinly veiled threats, or by the killing of the unwilling. Obviously the Greek conquerors targeted the nobility, not the peasants. Those seven brothers (and eventually their mother too) were killed defending those values that had shaped them and had made them who they were.
This Sunday we remember those soldiers who fought and fell in the Great War and in subsequent ones. We can differ in our views on wars, militarism and armaments. We can argue whether any war has ever solved any conflict. When we watch news from Iraq, Afghanistan or some African countries, we can have well-founded doubts. And yet, the sacrifice of those who have been fighting and have fallen is beyond doubt, as is the grief of their families and friends. They fought and died for the way of life they considered to be most precious. Jewish and Polish citizens of my home country were mercilessly decimated in the name of racial purity; had not British and Allied soldiers fought against the Nazis, our world would have been a much worse place to live in.
Nowadays we have our own battlefields and our own fights. But I don’t mean in any of those places in the world where there are military conflicts. Rather, as in the times presented in today’s first reading, the struggle of our own time is in defence of our Christian faith. Similarly the main tactic is to undermine Christianity as culturally obscure, our beliefs as unreasonable, and our attitudes as antiquated. Direct attacks are relatively rare because, ironically, they strengthen Christians; offering a so-called ‘modern culture’, opposing Christian values, seems to be a much more effective tactic.
In our fight to defend Christian values our efforts can be easily ill-directed, focused on maintaining those elements that can, and sometimes should, change, while missing dramatically those that are really essential. Over the centuries Christianity has been constantly evolving, adjusting its language, liturgy and practices to the changing world around it. But at the same time we have kept what is at the core of our faith – as we profess it in the Creed every Sunday. Our call is still the same, and it has always been; St Paul in the second reading puts it clearly: ‘pray that the Lord’s message may spread quickly and be received with honour as it was among you.’ This is the message of Jesus Christ, who came to this world to set us free: each one of us.