I offered yesterday the text of the martyrdom of the holy Seven Maccabees, who refused the violate the commandments of God and suffer death instead. The most amazing character in the story of these great Old Testament martyrs, is their teacher, Eleazar. He was offered an interesting option regarding his martyrdom. The issue that the wicked Antiochus Epiphanes, who was an agent of pagan Hellenism a la Alexander the Great, was focused on the dietary laws of the Jews. Any other commandment could have served his purpose, but he decided to focus on the laws of kosher. His simple invitation to apostasy: eat pork.
The teacher, Eleazar, was a feeble 90 years of age. Thus his tormentors offered him an easy way out (seeking to respect his age):
Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring meat of his own providing, proper for him to use, and pretend that he was eating the flesh of the sacrificial meal which had been commanded by the king, so that by doing this he might be saved from death, and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them. But making a high resolve, worthy of his years and the dignity of his old age and the gray hairs which he had reached with distinction and his excellent life even from childhood, and moreover according to the holy God-given law, he declared himself quickly, telling them to send him to Hades. “Such pretense is not worthy of our time of life,” he said, “lest many of the young should suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year has gone over to an alien religion, and through my pretense, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they should be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. For even if for the present I should avoid the punishment of men, yet whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” When he had said this, he went at once to the rack. And those who a little before had acted toward him with good will now changed to ill will, because the words he had uttered were in their opinion sheer madness. When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned aloud and said: “It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him.” So in this way he died, leaving in his death an example of nobility and a memorial of courage, not only to the young but to the great body of his nation.
Thus the noble Eleazar died, more concerned that he be seen as a visible sign and encouragement to a younger generation, than to accept a “legal” way to escape his sufferings though he mistakenly be thought to have compromised.
In an age of legalisms, and leaders who hide behind the niceties of the law, what an inspiration to read of a man, worthy of his years, who despised the easy solutions of others, but chose instead to be an example to all in the completion of his many years.
Our generations have known such heroes. We have seen Solzhenitsyn. We have known Calciu and Braga and Staniloae and others who refused to renounce their faith. Our sad parade of American politicians, full of excuse and bravado have shown us that they are not those to be trusted with the serious matters of our age. Rather those who have set for us the uncompromising loyalty of servants of God have shown the way.
We should extol their examples and encourage one another to faithfulness to God inspired by saints and confessors and despise the promises of politicians. We need not hope in men or their chariots, but in the name of the Lord our God. What we say, what we do, what we use as the guides of our lives, has been amply given to us in the generation before us who bravely confessed Christ before tribunals and threats of death. These names and their stories should always be on our tongues and the tongues of our children. Orthodoxy is the faith of martyrs. We should strive for nothing less. May God grant us to be worthy of their noble examples! May the Holy Maccabees and their noble teacher, Eleazar, pray for us!
Photo: railroad ruins from the Gulag.
Thank you Father Freeman!
what a great example Eleazar is for Christians! Today in America we cannot concieve of having to make such a choice. May God grant Grace to people today who have to choose between the True God and an alien god.
It should certainly be a goal for us to develop through a strengthening faith even fraction of such courage. If I am honest, I guess I would have to say that if faced with such a choice right now I would say ‘Bring on the pork!’
But I will keep on praying, and using the inspiration I find right here, to try to grow the faith and strength to make the better, tougher choices when the time comes.
It seems at times that it is the little compromises that are harder to evade than the clear choices (not that I have been given the clear choice to deny Christ or die) and perhaps this is so because we are squarely in our pride at “normal” times whereas the possibility of torture or death can have an incredibly humbling and sobering effect and make us abandon any delusions about leaning on our own strength.
One of the many glories of Orthodoxy is the passing of the baton of the saints lives on to us. We only need to grab hold of it and not let go.
Dear Fr. Stephen,
Glory to God for this excellent post. I have been Orthodox for 18 years and this is the first time I have ever actually digested this particular account. Thanks to the new OSB it is also the first time I have read the Maccabees. I am moved so deeply by this account of the 7 sons and their teacher Eleazar but, as a mother, I am particularly convicted by the actions of their faithful mother, Solomonia, who is pictured with them in the icon you posted. She was brought before Antiochus as well and watched as 6 of her sons were tortured and killed. Just before the youngest died Antiochus asked Solomonia to try to change the boys mind and save him, but she only encouraged him all the more. Finally, standing over the bodies of her dead sons, Solomonia raised her arms in prayer to God and then died. What faith! The account I read (from the 2008 Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints) then states that it was the brave martyrdom of these saints that ispired Judas Maccabeus to lead a successful revolt against Antiochus and once again restore the temple to its rightful purpose. I would say that not only does Eleazar set the bar quite high for those who would lead us but Solomonia as well raises the bar for all mothers who would rather give their children up to the world of leisure and ease and privilege over encouraging them to take up their cross daily with herself and fight the good fight. What a glorious cloud of witnesses God has given us for encouragement.
Fr. Stephen, thank you for posting this. After sharing it with my 8 year old, he is sure something horrible happened to the king. Please could you comment on how to share this with my son, what happened to the king?!
Fr. Stephen, just to answer my own question posted above: it looks as if the king died of disease.
The examples of martyrs is indeed compelling. We do well to learn that lesson. Its not just how we live but how we die.
A big part of my coming to accept the reality of Christianity was by watching a godly woman suffer and die of natural causes. While not a martyr her faith through affliction was compelling.