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Saints of the Old Testament: The Holy Maccabees, martyrs


Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees
Antonio Ciseri, 1868

On this day, the Catholic Church calls on the intercession the Holy Maccabees -- seven Jewish brothers and their mother and a priest named Eleazar martyred in 167 B.C. by the monstrous prototype of the Antichrist known to history as Antiochus Epiphanes. As St. Paul wrote to the Hebrews, these nine "were racked, not accepting deliverance, that they might find a better resurrection" (Heb. 11:35, citing II Macc. 7:9-14). The traditional Roman Martyrology commemorates the Holy Maccabees in these words:

This Day, the First Day of August

At Rome, on Mount Esquiline, the dedication of the Church of St. Peter in Chains

At Antioch, the martyrdom of the seven holy brothers, the Machabees, and their mother, who suffered under king Antiochus Epiphanes. Their relics were transferred to Rome, and placed in the Church of St. Peter, just mentioned.

As indicated by the Roman Martyrology, the Holy Maccabees are venerated on this day because today is the commemoration of the dedication of the Church of St. Peter in Chains, in which church the relics of the Holy Maccabees were placed after they were translated to Rome from the Holy Land. These holy martyrs came to be known as "Maccabees" because the story of their martyrdoms is told at length in the second book of Maccabees, chapters 6-7.  In fact, the appellative "Maccabee" properly belongs to the great deliverer Judas Maccabaeus, who with his brothers rose up against the inhuman oppressor Antiochus Epiphanes who sought to completely eliminate the worship of God throughout his kingdom and to replace it with pagan demon worship and debauchery. The Jews who remained faithful to God in those days followed the leadership of Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers, and so are also remembered as "Maccabees" -- especially if they figure in the divinely inspired historical accounts recorded in I & II Maccabees. It is from the cruelly demented tortures and deaths that the Holy Maccabees suffered that the English word macabre is derived.  So powerful a testimony did these holy martyrs give that a later Jewish author wrote an extended meditation specifically on their martyrdoms -- the apocryphal book known as IV Maccabees. Their deaths also served as the model for the martyrs of the early Church (and indeed for all those of every age who have been slain for being Catholic), and the account in II Macc. 6-7 is recognisable as the literary model on which martyrologies and Saints' Lives were based. 

Blessed Jacobus de Voragine offers a number of reflections on the Holy Maccabees in his Legenda Aurea ("Golden Readings," more commonly called The Golden Legend). As noted when this series began, among his comments on the Holy Maccabees, Blessed Jacobus explained why it was the tradition of the Western Church not to generally celebrate Old Testament saints, except for the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem and the Holy Maccabees. But the remarks of Blessed Jacobus on the Holy Maccabees are worth reading in full. His remarks follow, as translated in Caxton's classic late medieval English edition of the Legenda Aurea (emphasis added):


"There were seven Maccabees with their worshipful mother, and a priest named Eleazar which would eat no swine's flesh because it was defended in their law. And after that it is contained in the second book of the Maccabees, they suffered great torments, and such as never were heard tofore; and it is to understand that the Church of the Orient maketh the solemnities of the saints of that one and of that other Testament. And the Church of the Occident maketh no feast of them of the Old Testament, save of the Innocents, because that the souls of the saints of that time descended into hell, but she maketh feast of the Innocents because Jesu Christ was slain in every each of them, and also of the Maccabees. And there be four reasons wherefore the Church maketh solemnities of the Maccabees, howbeit that they descended into hell. The first reason is because they had prerogative of martyrdom not tofore like heard, and above that any other of the Old Testament have suffered. And therefore be they privileged that their passion be solemnised by their merit. And this reason is set in Scholastica Historia. The second reason is for the representation of the mystery, the number of seven is universal and general. And by them be understood and signified all the fathers of the Old Testament worthy to be solemnised. And howbeit that the Church maketh not solemnity of them because they descended into hell, and also because that there came such a multitude of new saints, nevertheless in these seven is done reverence to them all. For as it is said by the number of seven is assigned an university. The third is because of the ensample of suffering. And there be purposed in example of good Christian men for two things, that is to say the constancy; after the constancy of them they be enhardened in the love of the faith, and also for to suffer for the law of the gospel, like as they did for the law of Moses. The fourth reason is for because of their torments. For they suffered such torments for their law that they held for to defend like as Christian men do for the law of the gospel. And Master John Beleth assigneth these three last reasons in his Sum of the Office."


All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

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