Monday, November 16, 2009

Dark Days

We're starting to read from the first Book of Maccabees, a sure sign that "the end is near" for the Church year. The two books of Maccabees are among those books that you generally won't find in Protestant Bibles, but they are both valuable and interesting (Maccabees is where you look for some biblical justification for the doctrine of Purgatory, for instance, and for the story of the first Hanukkah.)
Today's first reading sets the stage for the whole Maccabean drama: the local king, Antiochus Epiphanes (Antiochus the Magnificent), known as Antiochus Epimanes (Antiochus the Madman) by his less appreciative subjects, decided to impose cultural uniformity upon his realm. No doubt, a uniform populace was easier to rule than a culturally diverse one. Since Antiochus, like other local rulers, was a descendant of Alexander the Great's officers, it was Greek culture that was to hold sway: Greek customs, Greek schooling, Greek gods took the place of local customs and religion.
It wasn't enough for Antiochus and his minions to impose merely external conformity to the new political correctness. The world's first religious persecution went to far as to outlaw observance of the Sabbath and to destroy religious books, desecrating Torah scrolls and condemning to death anyone who harbored the Scriptures. Antiochus even took over the Temple, installing a statue of Zeus (or would that be Jupiter? or even Baal, the "Lord of heaven"?) on the altar. It must have seemed like the end of the world.
In the Gospel, when speaking of the actual end of time, Jesus used the same language we find in this description of Antiochus' desecration of the Temple. We'll be hearing more of that dramatic language in the days to come.

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