Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Feast of the Holy Maccabees

In the traditional Roman Rite, August 1st is the feast of the Seven Maccabee Brothers, long celebrated as a commemoration on the feast of St Peter’s Chains. Theirs is the only feast of Old Testament Saints kept on the general calendar, although certain others are found on local calendars, such as that of the Prophet Elijah, whom the Carmelites honor as their founder. From very ancient times, it is one of the most universally attested feasts in liturgical books of the Roman Rite, and is kept on the same day in the Ambrosian and Byzantine Rites.

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire, under which the Jewish people had been living for over two centuries, made them subjects of the Greeks. After Alexander’s death and the break-up of his empire, their land became the frontier between two of the successor states, the Egyptian kingdom ruled by his general Ptolemy, and the vast territory which fell to his general Seleucus, known as the Seleucid Empire. In the course of a series of wars, Judaea passed to the control of the latter in 198 BC.

The two biblical books of the Maccabees tell the story of the persecution of the Jews initiated by the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV, who succeeded to the throne in 175 BC, as part of his empire-wide policy of forced Hellenization. The first book begins with some harrowing stories of the terrible punishments inflicted on the Jews for continuing to observe the Law of Moses; it goes on to narrate the rebellion which broke out against the Seleucids in 167 BC, led by a priest named Mattathias, which would ultimately lead to the reestablishment of an independent Jewish kingdom.

“Maccabee” is derived through Latin and Greek from Aramaic “maqqaba – the hammer”, and is properly the nickname only of Judas, the third of Mattathias’ five sons, who on his father’s death took over the leadership of the rebellion (1 Macc. 2, 4). This nickname is extended to the two Biblical books, as well as several apocryphal works, and likewise to the other sons of Mattathias, and the Saints honored in today’s feast. However, nothing is known about the latter apart from the narration of their martyrdom in the seventh chapter of Second Maccabees, which does not give their names, and there is no reason to think they were related to Judah Maccabee and his family. There is a very ancient tradition that the name of the mother was Solomone, the Greek feminization of the name “Solomon”, although this is not stated in the Bible either.

A fresco of the 6th or 7th century in the church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum, showing Solomone in the middle, with a halo and her name written next to it, and Eleazar to the left, with his name written above his head.
The second half of 2 Maccabees 6 tells of the martyrdom of an elderly scribe of the Law named Eleazar, who refused to eat pork, or even pretend to eat it, in obedience to the Emperor’s edict, and for this was beaten to death. Some of the Church Fathers assumed that he was the father of the seven brothers, although this is also not stated in the Bible. In the Roman Breviary of St Pius V, this passage and the beginning of chapter 7 were read in the first nocturn of the fifth Sunday of October; in the second nocturn, a reading of St Gregory of Nazianzus commends Eleazar as “the first-fruits of those who suffered in this world before Christ… (who) offered seven sons, the fruits of his discipline, a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, more splendid and pure than every sacrifice of the Law; for it is most right and just to refer to the father what belongs to the sons.” [1]

The liturgical texts of the Byzantine Rite, on the other hand, refer to Eleazar several times not as their father, but as their teacher. This seems to have been inferred from the last verse of chapter 6, “Thus did this man die, leaving not only to young men, but also to the whole nation, the memory of his death for an example of virtue and fortitude,” since his death is followed immediately by the heroic martyrdom of the seven young men. At Orthros, for example, the following text is sung in their Canon. “Rejoice, Eleazar, seeing your holy disciples piously contending on this day for the laws and commandments of their fathers, and with wise words reproving the madness of the persecutor Antiochus.” The reading of the Synaxarion (the Byzantine equivalent of the Martyrology) for their feast day also gives names to the seven brothers, Abim, Antonius, Gurias, Eleazar, Eusebonas, Akhim and Marcellus; it should be noted that at least two of these are highly improbable, since Antonius and Marcellus are Roman names.

In the traditional Ambrosian liturgy, the Maccabee Martyrs share their feast with St Eusebius [2], who was the first bishop of Vercelli in northern Italy from roughly 345 until his death in 371. As one of the great defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity against the Arians, and a staunch supporter of St Athanasius, he suffered a long exile in the East at the command of the Roman Emperors; he was therefore one of the first “Confessors” in the original sense of the term, one who suffered for the Faith without undergoing a violent death. (In the Roman liturgy, he is traditionally honored as a Martyr.) The lengthy Ambrosian Preface of the Maccabees celebrates this day also as that of St Eusebius’ birth unto eternal life.

The reliquary of St Eusebius in the cathedral of Vercelli. (Photo by Nicola)
“Truly it is worthy and just, meet and profitable to salvation, that we, o Lord, in honor of Thy name, in the yearly feast of Thy Holy Martyrs the Maccabees, should celebrate with all wonderment those who, being brothers by birth, were companions in martyrdom. Their glorious mother conceived them in body and in spirit, so that those whom she had born into this world according to the flesh, she might also beget for glory unto almighty God, in spiritual fecundity. For those who were born according to the flesh that they might die, died piously unto life. Their tongues were cut our, their scalps taken, but in the midst of these things, these most glorious youths did not grieve for the cruelty of their torments, but exsulted that they died all the more gloriously, that they might each be a comfort and example to the others. After the rest, their mother by both blood and faith followed them at last, not that she might be last, but that before herself she might send to God the fruits of her womb, and so in peace follow her beloved sons. What then can we say, and with what exsultation, for the fact that on the day of their passion, there passed from this world to the seat of eternity the witness of the faith and confessor of the truth Eusebius? who on that very day, on which the martyrs of the Old Law suffered, as a champion of the New Testament was also taken to heaven. The former departed observing the commandments of the Jewish law; the latter fell asleep, affirming the unity of the undivided Trinity. Through Christ our Lord etc.”

In the official account of the post-conciliar changes made to the calendar, published by the Vatican Polyglot Press in 1969, it is stated that “the memorial of the Holy Maccabees, although it is very ancient and nearly universal, is left to local calendars; until the year 1960, it was kept only as a commemoration on the feast of St Peter’s Chains.” It would have been more accurate to say that the feast of the Maccabees was kept as part of the feast of St Peter’s Chains, since the same Roman basilica that houses the chains also keeps directly underneath them, in a crypt under the altar, the relics of these Saints. It not certain when or how exactly these relics came to be in Rome, and it is known that they were venerated at Antioch in the 4th century. Antioch, which was built by Seleucus and named for his father at the very end of the 4th century BC, was severely damaged by a terrible earthquake in 526, and never really recovered from the blow; it is quite possible that the relics were taken to Rome shortly thereafter.

This paleo-Christian sarcophagus in the crypt of St Peter in Chains is partitioned internally into eight compartments, which contain the relics believed to be those of the Maccabees. (Image from Wikipedia by Luciano Tronati, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The calendar commentary goes on to say “But now, the memorial of St Alfonse-Maria de’ Liguori is kept on August 1st, and according to the rubrics, another memorial cannot be kept on the same day.” This refers, of course to yet another innovation of the post-Conciliar reform which was not asked for nor even hinted at in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the almost total abolition of commemorations. The suppression of such an ancient feast for the sake of a merely rubrical expedient speaks very poorly for the reformers’ capacity to correctly identify which feasts were “truly of universal importance.” (SC 111)

[1] The reading from St Gregory was removed from the Breviary when the feast of Christ the King was instituted, which permanently impeded it; the readings from 2 Maccabees were redistributed through the week, with a special rubric to guarantee that they would almost always be read.

[2] In the post-Tridentine editions of the Ambrosian liturgical books, St Eusebius is completely detached from the feast of the Maccabees and transferred to August 17th; this error was corrected by revisions made in the early 20th century.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: