Liturgy – Worship and the Maccabean Martyrs

Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory forever!
Chapter Six of Second Maccabees 

Introduction:  Orthodox Christians live and worship a certain way 
We are Christians.  We have accepted Christ as our Savior.  We have brought the Holy Spirit into our lives.  We have given ourselves, mind, body, and soul, over to God.   We have offered ourselves as living sacrifices to love.  As Orthodox Christians, this means that we live a certain way.  Yes, it means that we are generous and long-suffering and virtuous.  But perhaps the most obvious expressions of our faith are the extra disciplines that we devote ourselves to.  Disciplines like following a prayer rule, fasting, and especially participating in the Divine Liturgy every Sunday and feast-day.  And while these are the most obvious expressions of our faith – the things that most clearly distinguish us from other Christians and people of good will, they are more than that: they are mechanisms of our salvation.  God works through them to change our hearts and draw us into a deeper union with the perfection that is in Him.  If we choose to ignore these disciplines in favor of other ways, it isn’t just that we have decided to identify with the world rather than Orthodoxy, it is that we have forsaken the Orthodox Way – the only path to perfection – entirely.  That is to say, we have not really “accepted Christ as our Savior.”  We have not really “brought the Holy Spirit into our lives”.  And we have certainly not really “given ourselves, mind, body, and soul, over to God”.  In other words, we are not really Orthodox Christians at all.

The example of the football player.
Perhaps an example will help clarify this a bit.  Football season is almost upon us.  Here in New England, you know football and you know football players.  What would you say if Tom Brady decided not to come to practice except when he felt like it, or decided he only wanted to play in games when it didn’t clash with his vacation schedule, or decided he would prefer to watch all the games from the stands?  Would you still consider him a great quarterback?  Would you still respect him?  Would he be fulfilling the terms of his contract?  Would he be allowed to to stay on the team?  Would he even be a real football player?   The answer is that a football player that refuses to practice and play would not be a football player for long.  He would not be taken seriously by his teammates or anyone else who loves the game.  I hope you see the point.  Just because someone says they are an Orthodox Christian does not mean they are.  If they don’t live a Christian life, with all the joy and sacrifices that this entails, then no matter what they say or think of themselves, they have some serious repenting and changing to do before they are back on the team.

So many distractions.
It’s not that such people are willfully dishonest or that they have necessarily made an intentional decision to reject Christ.  More likely, they have simply been distracted from Him; they have allowed the many temptations and entertainments this world offers to lure them off the Path.  And this world is great at offering such distractions.  We have entire industries devoted to, as one sociologist put it; “distracting ourselves to death.”  But Christ and the Church are quite clear.  There are only two ways: the Orthodox Way and that of the world.  And while our imaginations try to convince us that we have found some sort of “third way”, we haven’t.  We have replaced the truth with imitations; we have missed the mark.  This is true whether it involves the decision to choose pornography and licentiousness over chastity; the decision to choose self-indulgence over generosity and patience; or even the decision to choose entertainment or laziness over coming to the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning and feast days.  The world and our fallen consciences will give us plenty of good excuses to justify these choices, but they still mark us as being of the world rather than of Christ.  And while our first reaction is to defend the decisions and compromises we have made, only repentance and renewed dedication will get us back “onto the team”.

The example of the Maccabean martyrs.
The Maccabean martyrs that we commemorate today lived in a time when there were a lot of temptations to forsake God and find another way.  There was no “freedom of religion” and the Jewish religion was under attack.  It was the tumultuous aftermath of Alexander the Great conquests and death.  His rule had brought Helenism to the region from Persia and the Middle East all the way across to Afghanistan and down into India.  This did not just include Greek philosophy and rationality, but the worship of the gods of the Greek pantheon, as well.  Alexander died young and the events of 1st and 2nd Maccabees describe what happened to the Jews when his successors attempted to consolidate control over the empire he had created.  Among other things, they put pressure on the Jews to assimilate to their ways, to participate in blasphemies and to worship their gods.  Many Jews gave in.  They redefined their Jewishness to incorporate Greek customs and ceremonies.

But some of the Jews refused.  They remained true to the faith of Isaac, Abraham, and Israel.  To the Laws and the Prophets.  They recognized the siren song of the world for what it was: an attempt to draw them away from the Most High God.  They were willing to suffer not just their own pain and death, but that of others whom they loved so dearly.  Let me be very specific: they were willing to be cooked to death rather than eat pork.  They died rather than eat pork!  The modern mind recoils at this – not so much at the barbarity of the kind of government that would force such a choice on people, but that anyone would be willing to sacrifice something so great for something so trivial.  Our world teaches us that such faith and commitment is irrational and sick.

What about us?  When the sweet voices of the world and our consciences tell us that it is okay to violate the disciplines of our faith?  The Maccabean martyrs remained strong despite the threat of imminent pain and death.  Are we like them, or are we more like Esau, betraying our inheritance for a bowl of warm gruel?

Unlike those martyrs, we live in a country that honors and protects our religious freedom.  The very First Amendment of the Bill of Rights ensures this protection.  So there is no government demanding that we forsake our Orthodox faith and Orthodox practices.  No one is going to punish us if we refuse to eat meat during a fast, or if we tithe, or if we attend the Divine Liturgy every week.  No, when we break with our Orthodox tradition, we do it on our own.  We have created a new Orthodoxy, one that incorporates the ways of the world.  We no longer see the tension between the two.  We have lost our way.  We have missed the mark.

The Church knows how strong this temptation is.  And so it gives us the witness of the Maccabean martyrs.  May their example – and their prayers – rouse us from our delusion so that we can live in holiness and truth.