Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Maccabbean and Lubeck Martyrs

This past Sunday, the first reading at Mass was from the seventh chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees, telling the story of four of the seven brothers and their mother who were tortured and martyred in the presence of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes:

It happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king, to force them to eat pork in violation of God's law. One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

At the point of death he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”

After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put out his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.” Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man's courage, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.  When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

Father Curtis Hecker, the Parochial Vicar at Blessed Sacrament commented in his homily that the martyrs are challenging. The martyrs of the past and the present shame us in a way: he imagined one of us comfortable American Catholics standing before Judgment when the next person in line died a martyr for Jesus. As Father Pinckaers noted in The Spirituality of Martyrdom, even if we don't face the opportunity or occasion of martyrdom, we as Christians have to live the spirituality of martyrdom. We have to live the faith as much as be willing to die for it, each bearing our cross and following Jesus.

Today is the feast of the Blessed Lubeck Martyrs, three Catholic priests martyred during World War II, along with a Lutheran pastor, because they opposed the Nazi regime. According to the website dedicated to them:

On the 10th of November 1943 four clergymen, the Lutheran Pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink and the Catholic priests Hermann Lange, Eduard Müller and Johannes Prassek were executed in the Hamburg Prison Holstenglacis. They took a firm stand in public and among the parishioners entrusted to their care against the crimes of the Nazi regime. In witnessing with their lives and by dying they conquered the seperating (sic) devide (sic) of denominations and became shining examples of real ecumenism.

As this website notes, they "were guillotined in a Hamburg prison in November 1943. The Nazi regime found them guilty of 'defeatism, malice, favouring the enemy and listening to enemy broadcasts.'"

Pope Benedict XVI spoke about them when their beatification had been approved:

Many Christians in Germany are turning their full attention to the imminent celebration of the beatifications of various priests martyred under the Nazi regime. The Beatifications of Georg Häfner in Würzburg, as well as of Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange and of Eduard Müller in Lübeck, will take place in the coming year. The Evangelical Pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink will also be commemorated, together with the Chaplains of Lübeck. The attested friendship of four clerics is an impressive testimony of the ecumenism of prayer and suffering which flourished in various places during the dark period of Nazi terror. We can look to these witnesses as luminous indicators for our common ecumenical journey.

In contemplating these martyrs it appears ever more clearly and as an example that on the basis of their Christian conviction some people are prepared to give their life for their faith, for the right to practise what they believe freely, for freedom of speech, for peace and for human dignity. Today, fortunately, we live in a free and democratic society. Yet, at the same time, we note that many of our contemporaries are not strongly attached to religion, as was the case with these witnesses of faith. One might ask whether there are still Christians today who guarantee their faith without compromises. On the contrary, generally many people show an inclination for more permissive religious concepts, also for themselves.

The painting of the mother with her seven dead sons is by Antonio Ciseri, Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees (1863) (public domain)

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