The relics of the Holy Maccabees were brought to Rome and deposited at St Peter in Chains

August 1 is the feast of the Dedication of the Roman basilica St Peter in Chains and also, according to the traditional Roman calendar, the feast of the Seven Holy Maccabee brothers, included in the Martyrologium Romanum.

In the second century BC, the Maccabees fought against the Greek Seleucid rulers for Jewish independence in Israel. Hannukah commemorates the victory of Judas Maccabeus and the cleansing of the Temple.

From 167-164 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes violated Jewish holy sites. He set up an altar to Zeus in the Holy of Holies (1 Macc 1:54; Dn 11:31). The people revolted. Antiochus condemned to death any Jew who refused to sacrifice to the gods and abandon kosher laws. An elderly scribe, Eleazar, did not flee. Pork was forced into his mouth. He spat it out and was then condemned to death.

St Ambrose (d 397), in On Jacob and the Blessed Life, recounts the death of Eleazar along with seven sons of a mother. He describes their deaths in detail with commentary on the symbolic meaning of each. In these scenes, the mother, Solomis (venerated as a saint in the East), is forced to watch each of her sons executed in different ways, eldest to youngest. Ambrose thus explores the theme of how God chooses the weak and makes them strong.

The ancient Eleazar, weak due to age, is nevertheless a tower of strength. Solomis, mother of the seven boys, is unshakable; as are the seven holy sons.

Here is a taste of Ambrose: [Solomis] said to her sons: ‘‘I gave birth to you, and poured out my milk for you: do not lose your nobility.’’ Other mothers are accustomed to pull their children away from martyrdom, not to exhort them to martyrdom.

But she thought that maternal love consisted in this, in persuading her sons to gain for themselves an eternal life rather than an earthly life. And thus the pious mother watched the torment of her sons … But her sons were not inferior to such a mother: they urged each other on, speaking with one single desire and, I would say, like an unfurling of their souls in a battle line.

The image is eerily contemporary. The relics of the Holy Maccabees were brought to Rome and deposited at St Peter in Chains, where they are honoured still. Speaking of contemporary, the Holy Maccabees, unshakeable martyrs, may be models for us today.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/7/15).

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