Thursday, November 19, 2009

Would That You Had Known, City of Peace, What Makes For Peace!

Today’s First Reading is from the First Book of Maccabees (2:15-29):

The officers of the King, who were forcing the people to turn from God, came to the town of Modein to force the people there to offer pagan sacrifices. Many of the Israelites came to meet them, but Mattathias and his sons gathered in a group apart.

The king's officials said to Mattathias: “You are a respected leader in this town, and you have the support of your sons and kinfolks. Why not become the first one here to do what the king has commanded? All the Gentiles, the people of Judea, and all the people left in Jerusalem have already done so. If you do, you and your sons will be honored with the title of Friends of the King, and you will be rewarded with silver and gold and many gifts.

Mattathias answered in a loud voice: “Even if every Gentile in this empire has obeyed the king and yielded to the command to abandon the religion of his ancestors, my sons, my kinfolk and I will continue to keep the covenant that God made with our ancestors. With God's help we will never abandon his Law or disobey his commands. We will not obey the king's decree, and we will not change our way of worship in the least.”

Just as he finished speaking, one of the Jews decided to obey the king's decree and stepped out in front of everyone to offer a pagan sacrifice on the altar that stood there. When Mattathias saw him, he became angry enough to do what had to be done. Shaking with rage, he ran forward and killed the man right there upon the altar. He also killed the royal official who was forcing the people to sacrifice, and then he tore down the altar. In this way Mattathias showed his deep devotion for the Law, just as Phineas had done when he killed Zimri son of Salu.

Then Mattathias went through the town shouting, “Everyone who is faithful to God's covenant and obeys his Law, follow me! With this, he and his sons fled to the mountains, leaving behind all they owned. At that time also many of the Israelites who were seeking live according to righteousness and in obedience to the Law went out to live in the wilderness.

In this reading, we see Mattathias turn down bribes of gold and silver, and reject the offer to become one of the Friends of the King, so that he can fulfill the covenant he has made with the Lord. He holds steadfastly to this covenant, even to the point of resorting to violence before leaving the city to join the Jews who have fled to the wilderness, where they can live in peace, and in obedience to God’s will and to the Law of Moses.

Mattathias’ rampage in verses 23-26 of this reading finds a parallel in John 2:13-17, Jesus chasing the money changers out of the Temple, and the writer’s comment “In this way Mattathias showed his deep devotion to the Law”, is echoed in John’s citation of Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for God’s house will consume me.”

God calls us to keep our own covenant with him, by practicing our faith with zeal. We also are offered gold and silver, whether metaphorical or monetary, to induce us from the path of righteousness. Each of us must trust in God to give us the strength to fulfill our own covenant with Him and with his people.

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Today’s Gospel is taken from Luke (19:41-44):

Jesus is going up to Jerusalem, and his journey is coming to an end. In the previous verses, the people were singing and shouting for joy, strewing palm branches in his path as he approaches the city gates. Suddenly, the mood changes: As Jesus sees the city, he begins weeping over it, saying, “Would that you, the city of peace, had known today what makes for peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. For behold, the days are coming when your enemies will raise a palisade against you. They will encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation."

Across the Kedron valley from the city of Jerusalem there is a chapel I visited nearly forty years ago on a pilgrimage-retreat during Holy Week, early in April, 1964. The little church is called “Dominus flevit”, which means, “The Lord wept”. On the base of the altar there is a mosaic depicting a mother hen with her chicks gathered under her wings for protection, some of them peering out in the way chicks are wont to do. It is the only representation I have ever seen of Jesus lamentation, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34) It is a motherly image, warm and protective.

If you think it is too sentimental an image, look at it this way: We used to call the Church on earth “the Church militant”, a rather belligerent image, suggesting military conflict.  Yet it was meant to convey that our struggle is to resist temptation, avoid sin, and, with the help of God’s grace, to direct our thoughts and actions toward what is true and what is good.

The trouble is that we find it all too easy to be militant against others who disagree with us, but, when it comes to struggling with ourselves, we are chickens.

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