Saturday, 1 May 2021

Reading through the first book of the Machabees

Again, drawing to the end of the great Bible read, here is the short summary on the first book of the Machabees, that wonderful heroic tale of the family of the priest of Modin, Mattathias, who dared in the face of utter destruction to stand up to the tyranny of the Greek dynastic rule in northern Syria, which was one part of the great empire that had been established by the Macedonian general, Alexander the Great, in roughly 333 BC. As part of his empire-building procedure, Alexander had promoted Greek culture throughout his new possessions, from Egypt to Persia and the Indus valley. After Alexander died at an unexpectedly early age, his territories were divided between three of his generals. Of the various divisions, we are chiefly concerned here with the power in the north-Syrian town of Antioch, where the Seleucid dynasty appeared, and the new power in the old lands of Egypt, where the Ptolemaic dynasty now appeared - it was between these two that the unfortunate Jewish community was pushed and pulled between. The book itself describes the creation of these:
"So reigned Alexander for twelve years, and so died. And what of these courtiers turned princes, each with a province of his own? Be sure they put on royal crowns, they and their sons after them, and so the world went from bad to worse. Burgeoned then from the stock of Antiochus a poisoned growth, another Antiochus, he that was called the Illustrious. He had been formerly a hostage at Rome, but now, in the hundred and thirty-seventh year of the Grecian empire, he came into his kingdom." - I Machabees, 1: 8-11
These Greek powers continued with Alexanders promotion of Greek culture, but at least the Seleucids were particularly aggressive, and this aggression came up against the well-defined Hebrew and Jewish nationhood and religion. As with all political movements, the advance of Greek customs in Judaea had created two rivalling factions - the Jews who wished to remain with their ancestral customs and religion and the Jews who wished to 'move with the world.' The latter quickly fell into dissipation and began establishing Grecian elements within civic society. 
"In his day there were godless talkers abroad in Israel, that did not want for a hearing; 'Come,' said they, 'let us make terms with the heathen that dwell about us! Ever since we forswore their company, nought but trouble has come our way. What would you?' Such talk gained credit, and some were at pains to ask for the royal warrant; whereupon leave was given them, Gentile usages they should follow if they would. With that, they must have a game-place at Jerusalem, after the Gentile fashion, ay, and go uncircumcised; forgotten, their loyalty to the holy covenant, they must throw in their lot with the heathen, and become the slaves of impiety." - I Machabees, 1: 12-16
And so the scene was set for the new culture to be imposed by force of law, and the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes set about promptly to destroy the Jewish religion. The first part of the book is about the utter desolation of Jerusalem and Judaea that resulted, as the 'progressive' party of the Jews took to Greek customs and the Temple and priesthood were devastated. But there was, as there always is, a 'conservative' party and these threw in their lot with the priest Mattathias and his sons, who led a revolt against Antioch and fled for protection to the wilderness of Judaea, from where they began guerrilla warfare against the Greeks. The martial work was left to the more warlike of the sons of Mattathias, Judas, who was called Machabeus, 'the hammer.' He and his brothers were therefore the Machabees and the book is their story, how they fortified cities and defended the people against the petty tyranny of the Seleucids. These wicked men went so far as to cunningly massacre the Jews on the Sabbath, because they knew that the Jews would not fight on the Sabbath. The Machabees had to work around that:
"Thus, because it was a sabbath day when the attack was made, these men perished, and their wives and children and cattle with them; a thousand human lives lost. Great grief it was to Mattathias and his company when they heard what had befallen them; and now there was high debate raised: 'Do we as our brethren did, forbear we to give battle for our lives and loyalties, and they will soon make an end of us!' Then and there it was resolved, if any should attack them on the sabbath day, to engage him, else they should be put to death all of them, like those brethren of theirs in the covert of the hills. Now it was that the Assidaeans rallied to their side, a party that was of great consequence in Israel, lovers of the Law one and all..." - I Machabees, 2: 38-42
In this battle of the cultures, it was necessary for self-preservation to abandon even the Sabbath rule. In the absence of the advice of an actual prophet of the eternal God, the Machabees made several adjustments to create what would seem to be an emergency state of life for the people, when they were under threat. This was apparently acceptable to the ultra-orthodox sect of the Assidaeans, who joined sides with the Machabees, as above. The entire Machabean enterprise - which consisted of the rule over the Jewish people by this family of priests - was itself an emergency set-up and it seems obvious that it was meant to persist only until the Will of God was made manifest through a prophet, such as in times past. Chapter three tells of the ascendancy of Judas as the defender of the people and the revenge of Antiochus IV, who sent a vast army against the Jews. Following a rousing speech, Judas managed the impossible - the destruction of a massive army with a few thousand men. 
"But Judas cried to his fellows, 'What, would you be daunted by the numbers of them? Would you give ground before their attack? Bethink you, what a host it was Pharao sent in pursuit of our fathers, there by the Red Sea, and they escaped none the less. Now, as then, besiege we heaven with our cries; will not the Lord have mercy? Will He not remember the covenant He had with our fathers, and rout, this day, yonder army at our coming? No doubt shall the world have thenceforward, but there is One claims Israel for His own, and grants her deliverance.' And now the heathen folk caught sight of them as they advanced to the attack, and left their lines to give battle. Thereupon Judas’ men sounded with the trumpet, and the two armies met. Routed the Gentiles were, sure enough, and took to their heels across the open country, sword of the pursuer ever catching the hindmost. All the way to Gezeron they were chased, and on into the plains by Idumaea, Azotus and Jamnia, with a loss of three thousand men." - I Machabees, 4: 8-15
And thus, they were able to retake Jerusalem and to restore the sacramental rites of the Temple, after a full rededication ceremony. This is the origin of the Jewish festival of Chanukah, which is celebrated in about mid-December.
"On the twenty-fifth of Casleu, the ninth month, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, they rose before daybreak, and offered sacrifice, as the law bade, on the new altar they had set up. This was the very month, the very day, when it had been polluted by the Gentiles; now, on the same day of the same month, it was dedicated anew, with singing of hymns, and music of harp, zither and cymbals. Thereupon all the people fell down face to earth, to adore and praise, high as heaven, the author of their felicity; and for eight days together they celebrated the altar’s renewal, burned victim and brought welcome-offering with glad and grateful hearts. They decked the front wall of the temple, at this time, with gold crowns and escutcheons, consecrated the gates and the priest’s lodging anew, and furnished it with doors; and all the while there was great rejoicing among the people; as for the taunts of the heathen, they were heard no more. No wonder if Judas and his brethren, with the whole assembly of Israel, made a decree that this feast should be kept year by year for eight days together, the feast-day of the altar’s dedication. Came that season, from the twenty-fifth day of Casleu onwards, all was to be rejoicing and holiday." - I Machabees, 4: 52-59
I don't mean to run through every detail of the book. Just to demonstrate the power of this heroic narrative, which would have been told and retold and would have been a part of the formation of Christ at Nazareth, less than two hundred years later. The generals Apollonius and Gorgias having failed to quell the rebellion, what should the Greeks do but pile on with armies, men, horses and elephants? It was inevitable that, despite his extraordinary success and military prowess, Judas would fall. Chapter five tells of how the three Machabean brothers, Judas, Jonathan and Simon, joined forces to chase out the Jews who were of the party of the pro-Greeks from the territory of Judaea. They were opposed by pro-Greek cities to the north - Ptolemais, Tyre and Sidon - and from across the Jordan to the east - the old enemy Ammon - and from the south-west, Philistia. Even as they worked to restore Judaea, Antiochus IV died far away in Babylonia. His son Antiochus V Eupator attempted another retaking of Jerusalem, but had to give up the siege to return to Antioch to quell another rebellion. It was the next king, Demetrius I Soter (all these are Seleucid kings of the Greek dynasty, capitalled at Antioch in northern Syria), who having usurped the throne from Antiochus V began the offensive against Jerusalem anew, intending to establish a pro-Greek high-priest at the Temple, after ending the Machabean revolt. Judas knew of the danger and chapter eight tells us about the first diplomatic covenant of the Jews with the rising power of Rome, which was beginning to challenge the Greek kingdoms in the Levant. Notwithstanding this, Demetrius I piled armies upon the Jews and Judas was beaten and died in battle. The rule of the people now passed to his brother Jonathan, who proved to be a mighty warrior too.
"And now all that had loved Judas rallied to Jonathan instead; 'Since thy brother’s death,' they told him, 'none is left to take the field against our enemies as he did, this Bacchides and all else that bear a grudge against our race. There is but one way of it; this day we have chosen thee to be our ruler, our chieftain, to fight our battles for us.' So, from that day forward, Jonathan took command, in succession to his brother Judas." - I Machabees, 9: 28-31
The general Bacchides now turned his sights upon Jonathan. The rest of the chapter is about Jonathan's struggle against Bacchides, as the pro-Greek high-priest set up by Bacchides began to have his way with Jerusalem. Bacchides repulsed, Jonathan was able to establish his position as the leader and general of the Jews, from his seat not at Jerusalem, but at Machmas, slightly to the north. The next political hiccup was the arrival of a new rival to Demetrius at the port of Ptolemais in about 150 BC, Alexander Balas, who claimed the loyalty of the Syrian armies and was able for a few years to take up the Seleucid throne. Both he and Demetrius had tried to acquire the loyalty of Jonathan, who had become a significant power in Judaea. Also into the fray had come the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy, who pretended to ally with Alexander and then with Demetrius II Nicator after him, intending himself to have both the Syrian territories and his own Egyptian territories. Within a short time, both Alexander and Ptolemy were dead, and Demetrius II still at Antioch. Jonathan, as given by chapter twelve, now restablished relations with the Romans, who were quickly advancing eastwards, and also with the Spartans, the independent and martial Greek nation that claimed descent from the patriarch Abraham. Unfortunately, Jonathan now fell into a trap set for him by the Greek general Tryphon at Ptolemais; Tryphon wished to acquire the throne at Antioch and thought Jonathan a significant challenge to his enterprise. Simon, the least war-like of the Maccabean brothers, now reluctantly took up the mantle of leadership, for the sake of the people. 
"And what did Simon, when he heard that Tryphon had levied a strong force, for Juda’s invasion and overthrow? Here was all the people in a great taking of fear; so he made his way to Jerusalem and there gathered them to meet him. And thus, to put heart into them, he spoke: 'Need is none to tell you what battles we have fought, what dangers endured, I and my brethren and all my father’s kin, law and sanctuary to defend. In that cause, and for the love of Israel, my brothers have died, one and all, till I only am left; never be it said of me, in the hour of peril I held life dear, more precious than theirs! Nay, come the whole world against us, to glut its malice with our ruin, race and sanctuary, wives and children of ours shall find me their champion yet.' At these words, the spirit of the whole people revived; loud came their answer, 'Brother of Judas and Jonathan, thine to lead us now! Thine to sustain our cause; and never word of thine shall go unheeded!'" - I Machabees, 13: 1-9
The book doesn't tell us of the end of the wicked Tryphon, who eventually escaped by ship from the Seleucid empire, but it is at this point that Simon became the head of a dynasty of priest-rulers, the Hashmonean dynasty (called after Simon, Shmona), establishing Jewish sovereignty for the first time since the destruction of the Davidic dynasty centuries before, albeit by the permission of the over-king in Antioch. 
"When king Demetrius answered the request, he wrote in these terms following. 'King Demetrius to the high priest Simon, the friend of kings, and to all the elders and people of the Jews, greeting. Crown of gold and robe of scarlet you sent us were faithfully delivered. Great favour we mean to shew you, by sending word to the king’s officers to respect the remissions granted you. The decrees we made concerning you are yet in force; and, for the strongholds you have built, they shall be yours. Fault of yours in the past, witting or unwitting, is condoned; coronation tax you owed, and all other tribute that was due from Jerusalem, is due no longer. Fit be they for such enrolment, Jews shall be enrolled in our armies, and ever between us and you let there be peace!' Thus, in the hundred and seventieth year, Israel was free of the Gentile yoke at last; and this style the people began to use, were it private bond or public instrument they indited, In the first year of Simon’s high priesthood, chief paramount and governor of the Jews." - I Machabees, 13: 35-42
Demetrius himself was shortly himself arrested and imprisoned by the king of the Medes and the Persians, and we here no more of him. Simultaneously, Simon grew from strength to strength, a ruler in his own right of Judaea, with claims on cities on the Mediterranean coast, such as Joppe (today's Tel-Aviv). He re-established the diplomatic relations with Rome and Sparta, who both gave him assurances of their protection, which must have helped the Jews to no end until the Romans themselves arrived finally in the Levant in 65 BC, with the general Pompey at their head. For the security and prosperity that followed, Simon was honoured by his nation. 
"Here were the Jews, priests and people both, agreed that he should rule them, granting him the high priesthood by right inalienable, until true prophet they should have once more. Their ruler he should be, and guardian of their temple; appoint officer and magistrate, master of ordnance and captain of garrison, and have charge of the sanctuary besides. Him all must obey, in his name deeds be drawn up, all the country through; of purple and gold should be his vesture. Of the rest, both priests and people, none should retrench these privileges, nor gainsay Simon’s will, nor convoke assembly in the country without him; garment of purple, buckle of gold none should wear; nor any man defy or void this edict, but at his peril. The people’s pleasure it was to ennoble Simon after this sort; and Simon, he would not say them nay; high priest, and of priests and people leader, governor and champion, he would be henceforward. So they had the decree inscribed on tablets of bronze, and set up plain to view in the temple precincts; and a copy of it they put by in the treasury, in the safe keeping of Simon and his heirs." - I Machabees, 14: 41-49
Here we notice the temporary nature of the Machabean situation. Every good Jew knew that the people should be ruled by a Messianic king of the family of King David, and that the high-priesthood was to be separated from this political rule. But until the advent of the Messiah, they wished to entrench the Hashmonean dynasty. This would end finally with the arrival of the Idumean king Herod on the scene. Unfortunately, we are not permitted to end on a happy note, for Demetrius' son Antioch soon arrived with his own claims and challenged Simon and the Jews' claim to the land of Judaea, to which Simon made quick reply:
" which Simon made this answer: 'Other men’s fief seized we never, nor other men’s rights detain; here be lands that were our fathers’ once, by enemies of ours for some while wrongfully held; opportunity given us, should we not claim the patrimony we had lost? As for thy talk of Joppe and Gazara, these were cities did much mischief to people and land of ours; for the worth of them, thou shalt have a hundred talents if thou wilt.' Never a word said Athenobius, but went back to the king very ill pleased, and told him what answer was given; of Simon’s court, too, and of all else he had seen. Antiochus was in a great taking of anger..." - I Machabees, 15: 33-36
Simon was by this time an old man, and he prepared his sons for their role in protecting the rights of the Jews. He could see that the challenges from the Greeks would continue to come, despite the promised protection from the Romans. Inevitably, Simon also was betrayed, and by a certain Ptolemy son of Abobus, possibly a successor of that pro-Greek high-priest Alcimus, who had been propped up briefly in Jerusalem and would wrest the position of the Hashmonean family from them. The book ends with this great betrayal and murder of a hero of the people and two of his sons, Judas and Mattathias. The remaining son, John Hyrcanus I, took up the role of priest-ruler, himself a great hero of the people.
"...a messenger had reached John at Gazara, telling him his father and brothers were dead, and himself too marked down for slaughter; whereupon he took alarm in good earnest; their murderous errand known, he seized his executioners and made an end of them. What else John did, and how fought he, brave deeds done, and strong walls built, and all his history, you may read in the annals of his time, that were kept faithfully since the day when he succeeded his father as high priest." - I Machabees, 16: 21-24

The prophet Jeremias

Today, aside from being the Solemnity of our holy patron S. Joseph as Workman, is also the memorial day of the prophet Jeremias. Here is his entry from the martyrology:

"Commemoration of Saint Jeremias the prophet, who, in the time of the kings Joachim and Sedecias [aka. Zedekiah] of Juda, while warning about the approaching destruction of the Holy City and the deportation of her people, suffered many persecutions, on account of which Holy Church holds him up as a prefigurement of the patient Christ. [Jeremiah] predicted the new and eternal testament consummated by the same Jesus Christ, by which the all-powerful Father wrote His Law upon the inmost heart of the children of Israel, that He would be Himself to them God and they to Him a people."

Roman martyrology, May the first

That wonderful summary reveals to us a devastated man, who knew what would happen to his nation and people, but try as he might he could not get them to change their ways. Here is a link to an earlier post on the prophecy of Jeremias, and another on the Lamentations of Jeremias.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Reading through the Song of Songs

This is a difficult one. Still on the Bible tour. The Song of Songs is probably the hardest to understand in its place in the canon of Sacred Scripture, even more so than Ecclesiastes. It seems to be a series of love letters thrown back and forth between various couples, with no obvious point. Could it be taken as words between the human soul and the God Who pursues it and draws it continually to Himself? Could it represent the Blessed Virgin herself who, as the spouse of the Holy Ghost, is mystically the Sulamite girl who is the focus of much of this set of poems? Let's have a look. This book is attributed generally to the Israelite king Solomon, so I'll stick his picture to the end of this post:

"A kiss from those lips!" Thus it begins, and already it would have the youngsters giggling in secondary school. It is well known that King Solomon had a harem of thousands of women. Being one of the most glamorous of the monarchs of the Levant in his time, he would certainly have had. And the women in the harem would probably vie among themselves for the attentions of the king. 
"Dark of skin, and yet I have beauty, daughters of Jerusalem. Black are the tents they have in Cedar; black are Solomon’s own curtains; then why not I? Take no note of this Ethiop colour; it was the sun tanned me, when my own brothers, that had a grudge against me, set me a-watching in the vineyards. I have a vineyard of my own that I have watched but ill." - Song of Songs, 1: 4-5
There's nothing wrong with having a semi-permanent tan, even if I do say so myself. And the king himself doesn't seem to mind it, whether this is an actual woman of the harem or if some young lady is dreaming the whole thing. 
"Still bewildered, fairest of womankind? Nay, if thou wilt, wander abroad, and follow with the shepherds’ flocks; feed, if thou wilt, those goats of thine beside the shepherds’ encampment. My heart’s love, prized above all my horsemen, with Pharao’s wealth of chariots behind them! Soft as doves are thy cheeks, thy neck smooth as coral. Chains of gold that neck must have, inlaid with silver." - Song of Songs, 1: 7-10 
A little later, his affection for this one lady is given with the line:
"A lily, matched with these other maidens, a lily among the brambles, she whom I love!" - Song of Songs, 2: 2
I have seen some of these lines used of the Blessed Virgin, the Virgin most fair, in such devotions as the Holy Rosary, in the meditations for the final mysteries of the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin. So, arise, arise, she must be raised to heaven:
"I can hear my true love calling to me: 'Rise up, rise up quickly, dear heart, so gentle, so beautiful, rise up and come with me. Winter is over now, the rain has passed by. At home, the flowers have begun to blossom; pruning-time has come; we can hear the turtle-dove cooing already, there at home. There is green fruit on the fig-trees; the vines in flower are all fragrance. Rouse thee, and come, so beautiful, so well beloved, still hiding thyself as a dove hides in cleft rock or crannied wall. Shew me but thy face, let me but hear thy voice, that voice sweet as thy face is fair.'" - Song of Songs, 2: 10-14
In some of the poetry of the Catholic mystics, such as the great Saint John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul, we hear strong echoes of the pining of the human soul for the God that completes her, and often finding Him elusive, even as in these lines from chapter three. 
"In the night watches, as I lay abed, I searched for my heart’s love, and searched in vain. Now to stir abroad, and traverse the city, searching every alley-way and street for him I love so tenderly! But for all my search I could not find him. I met the watchmen who go the city rounds, and asked them whether they had seen my love; then, when I had scarce left them, I found him, so tenderly loved; and now that he is mine I will never leave him, never let him go, till I have brought him into my own mother’s house, into the room that saw my birth." - Song of Songs, 3: 1-4
Blush we past the intimacy of chapter four and some of chapter five to find that the gentleman lover has departed once more. In Catholic spiritual theology, we find the Saints often talking about sequences of consolations and desolations. This is a strong theme in the teachings of Saint Ignatius Loyola of the Jesuits and also among the works of the great Carmelites of the sixteenth century. The very real sentiment of the presence of God in the soul is often followed swiftly by a strong intimation of his having departed. This is what we mean when we talk about the dark night of the soul. The dark night of desolation, when God has apparently left is experienced for different amounts of time, and for such as Saint Teresa of Calcutta (aka. Mother Teresa) it has lasted decades. After the high intoxication of the presence of God, this period of apparent draught can be extremely painful:
"I rose up to let him in; but my hands dripped ever with myrrh; still with the choicest myrrh my fingers were slippery, as I caught the latch. When I opened, my true love was gone; he had passed me by. How my heart had melted at the sound of his voice! And now I searched for him in vain; there was no answer when I called out to him. As they went the city rounds, the watchmen fell in with me, that guard the walls; beat me, and left me wounded, and took away my cloak. I charge you, maidens of Jerusalem, fall you in with the man I long for, give him this news of me, that I pine away with love." - Song of Songs, 5: 5-8
The rest of chapter five is a wistful memory of what is lost. The next chapter is the quiet appreciation of the hidden gentleman lover for this one lady, fairest of all, who is searching him out. If we consider that, especially in the several prophecies, God is always given as a husband to the nation of Israel, which is his bride, we may understand why this little book of poetry has been retained in the canon of Sacred Scripture. And this has been carried over by Apostles such as Saint Paul to the Christian Church. And there is another aspect at which I have hinted earlier: Catholic theology calls every human soul female, in that she is betrothed to her Saviour.
"Who is this, whose coming shews like the dawn of day? No moon so fair, no sun so majestic, no embattled array so awes men’s hearts. But when I betook me to the fruit garden, to find apples in the hollows, to see if vine had flowered there, and pomegranate had budded, all unawares, my heart misgave me... beside the chariots of Aminadab. Come back, maid of Sulam, come back; let us feast our eyes on thee. Maid of Sulam, come back, come back!" - Song of Songs, 6: 9-12
And I shall end with this end of the book. What is more precious than this relationship of love between husband and wife, between God and people, which is sung about throughout the Bible? Ask a Saint of the Church what they would want the most of all. The great Dominican sage, Saint Thomas of Aquino, had this answer: 'Non nisi Te, Domine.' None other than Thyself, Lord. [link]
"Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-Hamon; and when he gave the care of it to vine-dressers, each of these must pay a thousand silver pieces for the revenue of it. A vineyard I have of my own, here at my side; keep thy thousand pieces, Solomon, and let each vine-dresser have his two hundred; not mine to grudge them. Where is thy love of retired garden walks? All the countryside is listening to thee. Give me but the word to come away, thy bridegroom, with thee; hasten away like gazelle or fawn that spurns the scented hill-side underfoot." - Song of Songs, 8: 11-14

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Reading through the Book of Ecclesiastes (aka. Qoheleth)

Coasting towards the end of the Bible read, here's the end of the slightly controversial book called Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth. The word ecclesia in Greek means 'assembly' and the other book called Ecclesiasticus were designed to be read to an assembly. As indeed was most of the New Testament. The Hebrew word Q'hel has a similar meaning, but scholars seem often to treat 'Qoheleth' as a proper name. My own Bible translation, the Knox version, translates it as Spokesman, which of course is accurate. This 'spokesman' identifies himself as son of King David and one-time king of Jerusalem and therefore the book is traditionally given to be the work of King Solomon. It is a Wisdom book - it glorifies divine Wisdom and finally the commandments of God. I called it controversial because it is quite unlike any other book in the Bible in that it hardly ever refers to God, and the few references are often seen by scholars as later additions to engraft this rather odd book into the canon of Scripture. The Spokesman describes himself as a student of human nature and an observer of all things under the sun, the words 'under the sun' repeated multiple times throughout. That makes this a book part of a general study of science, and we know that King Solomon was devoted to the study of the natural world, alongside everything else (III Kings, 4: 32-34). So, let's jump right in with some general observations about this book.
"I was a king in my day, I, the Spokesman; Israel my realm, Jerusalem my capital. And it was my resolve to search deep and find out the meaning of all that men do, here under the sun; all that curse of busy toil which God has given to the sons of Adam for their task. All that men do beneath the sun I marked, and found it was but frustration and lost labour, all of it; there was no curing men’s cross-grained nature, no reckoning up their follies." - Ecclesiastes, 1: 12-15
The whole book almost is an expression of frustration, and so in a way discouraging. No matter what you do, says the writer, if you practice virtue or live in sin, you still end your life in the same way, with death and the grave. The book evidently has no understanding of the life beyond, reward beyond this life and any pleasure in virtue aside from the life of virtue itself - there is no apparent gain one may have from any action performed here below that can be carried beyond the grave. Therefore, what's the point in trying? Hence, the frustration. A scientist studies systems to discover their ends - what they were intended to produce and enable - and when he cannot find this design result, after long investigation, he lapses into frustration. This is the spirit I find in this book.
"Next, I thought to give the rein to my desires, and enjoy pleasure, until I found that this, too, was labour lost. Wouldst thou know how I learned to find laughter an empty thing, and all joy a vain illusion; how I resolved at last to deny myself the comfort of wine, wisdom now all my quest, folly disowned? For I could not rest until I knew where man’s true good lay, what was his life’s true task, here under the sun." - Ecclesiastes, 2: 1-4
So, the writer has discovered that even bodily pleasures are vain and unfulfilling, so he took up a severe asceticism and made the study of wisdom his primary activity. But even this seemed useless, for it profited nothing to the wise man to transcend the common end of all mortal beings. The writer makes the same observation we've seen in books like Job - that evil men thrive and good men suffer - and asks what's the point of practising virtue at all. We're all being driven towards the grave anyway, along with every other kind of mortal being.
"I marked, too, how wrong was done instead of right, injustice instead of justice, there under the sun’s eye; and I told myself that God would give judgement one day between the just and the sinners, and all things would reach their appointed end then. I told myself that God’s purpose with the sons of men was to test them …… And that they might see they were only like the beasts … After all, man comes to the same ending as the beasts; there is nothing to choose between his lot and theirs; both alike are doomed to die. They have but one principle of life; what has man that the beasts have not? Frustration everywhere; we are all making for the same goal; of earth we were made, and to earth we must return." - Ecclesiastes, 3: 16-20
Dear me, it's all dismal. The Spokesman decides that the best we can do with our lives is to enjoy ourselves while we still can. Does this sound familiar? It's the song of our nihilist society today. How is this position drawn into the conventional Hebrew faith of trust in God and the quest for justice? There must be some reason the Fathers have retained this book in our canon of Sacred Scripture. At this point, we discover some good advice for social living:
" Better to be in partnership with another, than alone; partnership brings advantage to both. If one falls, the other will give support; with the lonely it goes hard; when he falls, there is none to raise him. Sleep two in one bed, each shall warm the other; for the lonely, there is no warmth. Two may withstand assault, where one is no match for it; a triple cord is not lightly broken. There is more hope for a wise servant that is in hard straits, than for a dotard king that foresight has none... Look well what thou art doing when thou goest into God’s house; present thyself there in a spirit of obedience. Obedience is far better than the sacrifice made by fools, that are guilty of unwitting sacrilege." - Ecclesiastes, 4: 9-13, 17
Ahah - the first reference to God. The next chapters continues the theme of honouring God, and sounds vaguely similar to Christ warning us not to use many words in prayer, for God knows what we need already. This fifth chapter notes that injustice committed is still watched over by the Eternal One. There is certainly a moral element here, for although the writer again states that man can do no more than take enjoyment from the work of his hands in this life, he speaks of the futility of hoarding one's money away when one cannot take it beyond the grave. Could he mean that the wealth should be shared? Anyhow, the ongoing theme is the unfulfilling nature of riches and wealth, what chapter six calls 'a full mouth and an empty belly.' Frustration, frustration, all around. What is the point of living and working? Chapter seven begins a typical set of instructions for the wise, which we would recognise from the books of Proverbs and of the Wisdom of Solomon. Keep man's final end always in mind, search for wisdom, control your tongue, accept your station in life as given by God, avoid evil, fear God and cultivate the traditions of the past (piety), etc. It seems that all this must be honoured without looking for a reward, material or otherwise. 
"Whatever lies in thy power, do while do it thou canst; there will be no doing, no scheming, no wisdom or skill left to thee in the grave, that soon shall be thy home. Then my thought took a fresh turn; man’s art does not avail, here beneath the sun, to win the race for the swift, or the battle for the strong, a livelihood for wisdom, riches for great learning, or for the craftsman thanks; chance and the moment rule all. Nor does man see his end coming; hooked fish or snared bird is not overtaken so suddenly as man is, when the day of doom falls on him unawares." - Ecclesiastes, 9: 10-12
Do what you can, while you have the opportunity. For we cannot plan our opportunities. Above all, we do not know when we ultimately lose all opportunities, when death takes us, as it will inevitably do. Chapter ten is a long ridicule of foolishness and idleness in the face of the above advice to use every opportunity. So, the effect so far is the value of the virtue of diligence without the hope of reward. This type of activity performed during youth will stand one in good stead when the illness and infirmity of old age make such things more difficult and frustration increases (as may have happened to the writer himself). 
"Only be thy years never so many, never so happy, do not forget the dark days that are coming, the long days, when frustration will be the end of it all. While thou art young, take thy fill of manhood’s pride, let thy heart beat high with youth, follow where thought leads and inclination beckons, but remember that for all this God will call thee to account. Rid thy heart, then, of resentment, thy nature of ill humours; youth and pleasures, they are so quickly gone!" - Ecclesiastes, 11: 8-10
The final chapter speaks of the increasing physical and mental dissipation of old age, and the flight from this life on earth. How would I sum up this book? It is a call to duty to God and to society, working while there is still time to work and hoping for no reward for it. If reward does come, take enjoyment of it but do not hoard away, for nobody can take wealth beyond the grave. And all will finally fall before the judgement of God. This is the summary of the book, given by the book itself:
"Fear God, and keep his commandments; this is the whole meaning of man. No act of thine but God will bring it under His scrutiny, deep beyond all thy knowing, and pronounce it good or evil." - Ecclesiastes, 12: 13-14

Feast day of Saint Mark (25th of April)

It's a pity indeed that we bypass entirely the feast day of the Evangelist Saint Mark in the very year when we honour Holy Scripture and focus on Saint Mark's Gospel. But such is the nature of the Lord's Day, which liturgically blots out almost every other anniversary and observance. I thought we could make a quick memorial today. Here then is a translation of the Roman Martyrology entry for tomorrow:

"Festival of Saint Mark, Evangelist, who at Jerusalem first followed Blessed Paul into the apostolate, then attaching himself to the ministry of Blessed Peter was called by him a son, and whose (Peter's) catechism on the Gospel to the Romans he (Mark) composed into a Gospel, and finally is traditionally given to have founded the Church in Alexandria."

Roman Martyrology, the 25th of April

Mark appears first in the Acts of the Apostles (12: 12), as a near relation of the Cypriot Apostle Saint Barnabas, who was one of the earliest associates of the Twelve. As such, he joined Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas on their first journey together, which included Cyprus itself. Following a later disagreement with Paul (Acts, 15: 37-40), Mark left his company and must then have attached himself to Saint Peter. That Peter called him son is clear from the end of the first letter of Saint Peter that we have in our New Testament.

"The church here in Babylon, united with you by God’s election, sends you her greeting; so does my son, Mark. Greet one another with the kiss of fellowship. Grace be to all of you, friends in Christ Jesus. Amen."

I Peter, 5: 13-14

It is a long tradition in the Roman Church that the Gospel of S. Mark is composed from the memories of the Apostle S. Peter himself, as mentioned in the martyrology entry above. Mark is traditionally given to have remained in the Roman Curia, as that might have existed under Saint Peter as the first Roman bishop. Therefore, when Peter bent his mind towards the growing number of Christians in the City of Alexandria in lower Egypt, he sent Mark out to establish the See and Patriarchate there that is today identified with the Coptic Church. The Coptic Church was therefore originally a daughter church of Rome. Tomorrow, April the 25th, the Roman Church remembers the second patriarch of Alexandria as well, Mark's successor. This is his entry in the martyrology:

"Commemoration of Saint Anianus, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, who according to the testimony of Eusebius and in the eighth year of the emperor Nero, received as the first after Saint Mark the bishopric of this City and held it for twenty-two years, being a man accepted by God and admirable in every way."

Roman Martyrology, the 25th of April

So, let us remember the Coptic churches today, Catholic and non, as the children of those first two exceptional bishops and patriarchs. They are persecuted today as they have been persecuted for some thirteen centuries. May they be always blessed.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Reading through the second letter of the Apostle Saint Peter

Coasting towards the end of the great Bible-read, here is the second letter of the Apostle Saint Peter, sent much later in his ministry as bishop of Rome, for he hints at his upcoming death. The Apostle here demonstrates a high theology of grace, the benefit on the Church of her embracing the God-Man, whose humanity is the channel for all of us of the immense bounty of God's grace, which manifests in us a life of virtue:
"See how all the gifts that make for life and holiness in us belong to His divine power; come to us through fuller knowledge of Him, whose own glory and sovereignty have drawn us to Himself! Through Him God has bestowed on us high and treasured promises; you are to share the divine nature, with the world’s corruption, the world’s passions, left behind. And you too have to contribute every effort on your own part, crowning your faith with virtue, and virtue with enlightenment, and enlightenment with continence, and continence with endurance, and endurance with holiness, and holiness with brotherly love, and brotherly love with charity." - II Peter, 1: 3-7
The graces we receive and the virtues they produce in turn enable us to grow in our knowledge of Christ and of God. The first part of the letter is therefore a rousing call to the life of virtue. Very touching here, as the Apostle speaks of his life now coming to an end, is his memory of the glory of Christ, that he and the two sons of Zebedee had witnessed on the mountain at the Transfiguration. This is the voice of the Apostles as witnesses, when they tell us what they saw and heard and that we cannot see and hear ourselves.
"We were not crediting fables of man’s invention, when we preached to you about the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and about His coming; we had been eye-witnesses of His exaltation. Such honour, such glory was bestowed on Him by God the Father, that a voice came to Him out of the splendour which dazzles human eyes; 'This,' it said, 'is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; to Him, then, listen.' We, His companions on the holy mountain, heard that voice coming from heaven, and now the word of the prophets gives us more confidence than ever. It is with good reason that you are paying so much attention to that word; it will go on shining, like a lamp in some darkened room, until the dawn breaks, and the day-star rises in your hearts." - II Peter, 1: 16-19
Yes, indeed, the Apostolic account of the Transfiguration is one of the most memorable accounts in the Gospels. Following this claim of true Apostolic witness, the Apostle reminds us that there exists false witness as well, men who claim to know more about Christ than His own Apostles. We're all too familiar with people today who claim to know better than Holy Church what Christ would think about this, that and the other. Thus, the Apostle says:
"So, among you, there will be false teachers, covertly introducing pernicious ways of thought, and denying the Master who redeemed them, to their own speedy undoing. Many will embrace their wanton creeds, and bring the way of truth into disrepute, trading on your credulity with lying stories for their own ends. Long since, the warrant for their doom is in full vigour; destruction is on the watch for them. God did not spare the angels who fell into sin; he thrust them down to hell, chained them there in the abyss, to await their sentence in torment." - II Peter, 2: 1-4
God allows even His angels to rebel against him and their punishment is instantaneous. What then of the men who dare the same type of rebellion? Or try to justify sinful lifestyles, while sneering at the teaching of the Church, which they do not understand.
"Such men, like dumb creatures that are born to be trapped and destroyed, sneer at what they cannot understand, and will soon perish in their own corruption; they will have the reward their wickedness has deserved. To live in luxury while the day lasts is all their pleasure; what a stain they are, what a disfigurement, when they revel in the luxury of their own banquets, as they fare sumptuously at your side! Their eyes feast on adultery, insatiable of sin; and they know how to win wavering souls to their purpose, so skilled is all their accursed brood at gaining its own ends." - II Peter, 2: 12-14
The Apostle is speaking here not generally about worldly men, but particularly about Christians who, having been baptised, have fallen back upon their old lives. Here's some language that we would be less likely than Saint Peter to use of Catholics who have fallen away from the Faith:
"That they should have been rescued, by acknowledging our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, from the world’s pollution, and then been entangled and overpowered by it a second time, means that their last state is worse than the first. Better for them, never to have found their way to justification, than to have found it, and then turned their backs on the holy law once handed down to them. What has happened to them proves the truth of the proverb, The dog is back at his own vomit again. Wash the sow, and you find her wallowing in the mire." - II Peter, 2: 20-22
The use of the words 'their last sate is worse than the first' takes us back to the horrifying picture Christ Himself drew of the exorcised soul that was re-inhabited by the devil that had once possessed it and by some of his fellows to boot.
"The unclean spirit, which has possessed a man and then goes out of him, walks about the desert looking for a resting-place, and finds none; and it says, I will go back to my own dwelling, from which I came out. And it comes back, to find that dwelling empty, and swept out, and neatly set in order. Thereupon, it goes away, and brings in seven other spirits more wicked than itself to bear it company, and together they enter in and settle down there; so that the last state of that man is worse than the first." - Gospel of S. Matthew, 12: 43-45
At the end, the Apostle deals with the accusation that the Church does not know the exact moment of the return of Christ, and the associated mockery. He states that time means nothing to God, and suggests perhaps that the question of when and how should not concern us as much as should the certainty of the arrival of that dreadful Day of the Lord and the perfection that we should struggle to acquire in the waiting.
"But one thing, beloved, you must keep in mind, that with the Lord a day counts as a thousand years, and a thousand years count as a day. The Lord is not being dilatory over His promise, as some think; He is only giving you more time, because His will is that all of you should attain repentance, not that some should be lost. But the day of the Lord is coming, and when it comes, it will be upon you like a thief. The heavens will vanish in a whirlwind, the elements will be scorched up and dissolve, earth, and all earth’s achievements, will burn away. All so transitory; and what men you ought to be! How unworldly in your life, how reverent towards God, as you wait, and wait eagerly, for the day of the Lord to come, for the heavens to shrivel up in fire, and the elements to melt in its heat!" - II Peter, 3: 8-12
And there I might end. The letter is a call to virtue and to adherence to the Church, and so to work towards acquiring the promises made to her by Christ. May the holy Apostle S. Peter pray for us.

The English Martyrs on the 20th of April

Looking through the Roman Martyrology (pictured above), which is a lengthy Church liturgical calendar, we usually have a light dusting of English martyrs across the year, but on some days the Elizabethan government outdid itself for a calendar day in its blood-lust for the rather intrepid Catholic priests who kept trying to enter these countries to minister to the several Catholics living their faith in hiding. We shouldn't ignore the witness of these men and women, who stood up to the government and died for the Church. There are often laymen listed, such as Blessed John Finch, below.

Let's list, as an exercise, every one of the martyrs for today. Here are translations of the martyrology entries, almost a whole page in the book. I shall link the names to other information I can find online:

At Lancaster in England, Blessed James Bell and Blessed John Finch, martyrs, the first of whom a priest, after twenty years belonging to another confession (read, the 'New Religion' of Anglicanism), having been reconciled at the encouragement of a certain woman with the Catholic Church, the second a family-man, farmer and catechist, persevering in the Faith after many years in prison, starved and tortured; the both at the same time and under Queen Elizabeth I arrived at eternal joy.

Roman Martyrology, April the 20th

At London in England, Blessed Richard Sargeant and Blessed William Thomson, priests and martyrs, who condemned to death for entering England as priests and daring to remain, suffered torture and death at Tyburn.

Roman Martyrology, April the 20th

At Clona in Ireland, Blessed Mauritius MacKenraghty, priest and martyr, who having spent two years in prison and yet did not wish to recognise the supremacy of Queen Elizabeth I, was handed over to the tortures of the scaffold.

Roman Martyrology, April the 20th

At York in England, Blessed Anthony Page, priest and martyr, who being a mild and honest man, was condemned to torture (and death) on account of his priesthood.

Roman Martyrology, April the 20th

At London in England, Blessed Francis Page of the Society of Jesus, and Blessed Robert Watkinson, priests and martyrs, who at the same time under Queen Elizabeth I were made to ascend the scaffold at Tyburn on account of their priesthood, Francis having only been entered into the Society one month (in prison).

Roman Martyrology, April the 20th