(Matthew 19:27-30; Hebrews 11:33-12:2; 2 Maccabees 7:20-29; Wisdom of Solomon 5:15-6:3)
Come, let us praise the heroes of our faith:
Apostles, martyrs, holy priests, and noble women!
They fought for the faith in every part of the earth.
Though born of earth, they were united with the heavenly hosts.
Through their sufferings, they triumphed over evil by the grace of Christ.
As unfading lights, they illumine our hearts,
and with boldness they pray for our souls.
On May 30 each year, and on this first Sunday after Pentecost, we remember all those who have witnessed boldly for the Lord, even to giving up their lives. Another hymn gives even more detail, calling us to remember: “the Apostles, Prophets, and Martyrs, the Hierarchs, Teachers, and the Holy Ones, the Ascetics, the Righteous, and the God-loving assembly of holy Women!” There are many whom the Holy Spirit has filled with fervor and power, even before His full coming upon God’s people at Pentecost—wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated, male and female, well-known and known only to God. We are reminded of this huge group of those who have gone before us in both our gospel and epistle readings for this Sunday. St. Peter, just prior to Jesus’ arrest and passion, asked for the Lord’s commendation of his faithfulness, and referred to the sacrifice of his fellow apostles:
Then Peter said…, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:27-30)
The last line should make us sit up and take note! “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” We may think we know, from our own observations, those who are heroes and heroines in God’s eyes, but there are some we may not have noticed, who are especially dear to God’s heart. The epistle to the Hebrews also reminds us of the huge group of witnesses, to whom we may look for courage in times of trial:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of [those] who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 11:33-12:2 RSV)
Consider the exploits of all these men and women who are not even named in Hebrews! Each one of them would provide great raw material for a historical novel, or a study in martyrdom. Time would fail anyone to tell the story of each of them. But we can take the time, on this week of All Saints, to tell one of the stories. The passage in Hebrews appears to be remembering particularly the story of the seven Maccabean brothers and their mother, who are not named in 2 Maccabees: but we have, from the Orthodox tradition, a name of “Solomonia” for the mother. This name is particularly appropriate for her character, her wisdom and her forthrightness, as she spoke in truth for God. In the narrative, as she encourages her sons to stand fast during their martyrdom, she speaks with great insight and courage about God’s creating and resurrecting power. It is these words, it seems, that gave her the title “prophetess” among early Church fathers such as Hilary of Poitiers (On the Trinity 4:16). Consider her spunk and perceptivity in a snippet of their colorful story, from 2 Maccabees 7:
The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their fathers. Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.” Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his fathers, and that he would take him for his friend and entrust him with public affairs.
Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native tongue as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: “My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.” (2Ma 7:20-29 RSV)
What drama there is in this situation! The mother speaks to her boys privately in their own language, and the pagan King cannot understand her words. He does hear her tone, and suspects something is up: but even if he could have understood what she was saying, he would have listened with utter astonishment and incomprehension. His strategy has been to torture each of the youths before her eyes, until finally she begs them to act against their conscience and do what the tyrant wants—commit idolatry! Instead, she is filled “with a noble spirit’—surely with the Holy Spirit Himself, though our early Jewish writer is not aware of this third person of the Trinity. Strengthened by the life-giving Comforter, she joins together the best of all that it is to be human—courage with insight—and she speaks with eloquence about the difference between God’s great creative power and her own humble part in bearing children.
These seven youths are God’s own, and not hers first and foremost—even her conception and childbearing are mysterious to her, for it is God who creates. Indeed, she closes off her encouragement to her youngest son by being very specific about God’s power—he has made the cosmos out of nothing! Frequently we credit Paul (Romans 4:17 ) and the letter to the Hebrews (11:3) for first clarifying this meaning of Genesis, that God did not create out of existing matter, as some pagan stories suggest, but that He created from nothing. (In fact, in many theological schools and colleges, teachers of Genesis suggest that the grammar of the first two verse of the Bible may easily be read as suggesting that God worked on pre-created matter!) As Christians, of course, we interpret the Scriptures through the apostles, and both Romans and Hebrews make it clear that God’s creation was completely ex nihilo. He was not a mere divine craftsman, like pagan deities who used, for example, the carcass of a primordial monster, or stones, to make the world and people. He called into being those things that had NO being, in utter creative power. But the earliest clear statement of the doctrine comes from this brave prophetess, it would seem, as she encouraged her sons to hope for the resurrection. She knew that if they died bravely, she would have them back again, glorified by God! God has made her sons for the purpose of glorifying Him, not merely to give her comfort: “God will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again,” she counsels them, “since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.” So, even before the time of the New Testament, this brave and perspicacious woman had a clear understanding of God’s nature, power, and love. She looks back to creation, and forward to the new creation, and speaks boldly on behalf of the God whom she worships!
Here is a warrior if there ever was one, a clear witness before a mad tyrant. She fulfills the words of the book of Wisdom, which reminds us that “the righteous will live forever, and their reward is with the Lord.” Consider the rest of this passage, read in Vespers for All Saints. Listen for the strength of the Lord, and consider the various parts of His armor, as He shows himself mighty on our behalf:
But the righteous live for ever, and their reward is with the Lord; the Most High takes care of them. Therefore they will receive a glorious crown and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord, because with his right hand he will cover them, and with his arm he will shield them. The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against the madmen. Shafts of lightning will fly with true aim, and will leap to the target as from a well-drawn bow of clouds, and hailstones full of wrath will be hurled as from a catapult; the water of the sea will rage against them, and rivers will relentlessly overwhelm them; a mighty wind will rise against them, and like a tempest it will winnow them away. Lawlessness will lay waste the whole earth, and evil-doing will overturn the thrones of rulers. Listen therefore, O kings, and understand; learn, O judges of the ends of the earth. Give ear, you that rule over multitudes, and boast of many nations. For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High, who will search out your works and inquire into your plans. (Wisdom of Solomon 5:15-6:3)
Here we behold a picture of the Lord vindicating his own, and fighting on their behalf—his armor, his righteousness, his justice, his holiness, his word, all putting the ignorant and the wicked into confusion. Of course, as Christians who have read Ephesians 6, we know that God also gives to us, His children, this armor, so that we may live valiantly for him. The book of Wisdom tells the kings of the earth to take note—the pagan kings who have yet to understand God’s might, wisdom and love. But Ephesians 6 reminds us that our battle is not primarily with the kings of the earth, but with the unseen powers and principalities. Indeed, this brave woman, unnamed in the Bible, but as the wise Solomonia by the Church, was battling not simply an earthly tyrant, but the great Adversary. This is the one who seeks to do us all harm—and she vanquished him with her simple and straightforward statement concerning the truth. So, too, are we called to be single-minded and truthful when put to the test. To keep in mind WHO God is, WHOSE we are, and to WHOM all things belong goes far in protecting us against the deceit and wiles of this enemy, this one who twists truth and seduces us to change our allegiance. To her son, as he was about to die, she gave the gift of truth. And to us, too, in our challenges, she speaks living words of encouragement, for she lives on in God’s care and in God’s eternal memory: “Look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear …. prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”
In our context, we are not called to accept death by torture. But we are tested in smaller ways. Must we face marginalization or ridicule? Must we forego a new position, or perhaps lose a job because of a stance for Christ and his truth? Are we out of sync with a world that rejoices over the new right to murder innocents, that is wholly confused about how God created them, male and female, that tempts us to give to our jobs the loyalty that only God should command? If we cannot be faithful in these smaller matters, we can hardly “prove ourselves worthy” of our brothers and sisters whom we remember this day. Let us look to the heavens and the earth, to all that God has made, and acknowledge who He is. Let us look to our history, to all whom God has made, and wonder at His love and power on behalf of people whom He is calling to become worthy to live with Him forever: “Though born of earth, they were united with the heavenly hosts. Through their sufferings, they triumphed over evil by the grace of Christ. As unfading lights, they illumine our hearts, and with boldness they pray for our souls.” And, above all, let us look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.