Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Thread of Life: IV Maccabees 9:10-32

Daily Readings
Isaiah 61, Daniel 12, IV Maccabees 9:10-32, Luke 4

Daily Text: IV Maccabees 9:10-32

The Thread of Life
The two oldest brothers are tortured and killed in IV Maccabees 9:10-32. Their language is a little removed from the circumstances. They sound like mouthpieces for the author as they continue to talk rationally about the superiority of pious reason as their bones are being broken and the skin is flayed off those same bones. The second brother even refers to the sweetness of dying for their ancestral religion. Clearly, their commitment to the Most High God is complete. The oldest brother is speaking words of encouragement to the younger brothers as his life drains from him. The last word of the author refers to this brother’s last words and then he writes, ”When he had said this, the saintly youth broke the thread of life. The second brother “lighten(s) his pain by the joys that come from virtue.” Why is it in our time that so many of us shy away from any public witness whatsoever?

A Tale From the Talmud
William Dearness

In Judah, in the days of story,
When chronicles were gilt with glory,
Heroic dames and virgins then
The equal honors earned with men;
And God himself the prophet taught
To praise and bless them as he ought.

My heart exults to contemplate,
My rhyme runs eager to relate
Their courage firm, their high resolve,
Their faith that nothing could dissolve.
Oh, that enthusiasm strong
Would from the theme inspire the song;
That in this sad, degenerate time
I’d write in poetry sublime—
What might some grace of emulation
Raise in a faint and prostrate nation.

I leave to men of deeper knowing
The task of God’s inerrant showing;
How nature’s best and noblest sons
Are cursed and crushed by worthless ones;
But this I know, that virtues holy
Are brightened by contrasting folly,
And constant courage best was shown
When persecutors had the throne,
And columns high had ne’er been reared,
Had no invading foe appeared;
And when to desperate straits we’re brought,
Then God’s deliverance is wrought.

When Judah by the Gentile arms
Had seen th’ extreme of war’s alarms,
O’erthrown her temple and her city,
Her children slaughtered without pity;
The demon conqueror intended
Her name and fame would both be ended.
He thought one dreadful, dire example
Of horrid torture might be ample,
Now that Jehovah’d them forsaken
And from his folk his flight had taken.

One matron from the drove he chooses,
Her seven sons he also looses;
In public presence will them test,
To answer his supreme behest.

The eldest, he him sets before;
“Now, bending down, our gods adore.”
“The Lord forbid,” he reverent cries;
“His holy law such act denies.
I to no image—neither thee—
Shall kiss the hand nor bend the knee.”

His life made forfeit then was taken—
His trust in Israel’s God unshaken.

The next that sacred household cherished,
Who witnessed how his brother perished,
At once responded: “Shall I less
Than his my faith in God confess?

I love God’s law—its second word
Is none but he is Israel’s Lord.”
And so he died for truth and faith.
The third, undaunted, also saith:
“None but Jehovah worship I”—
And likewise he was drawn to die.
The fourth the traitor’s awful doom
Sets forth: “Who in Jehovah’s room
Shall worship hero, god or demon”—
His young life, too, the sword makes claim on.

“Our God is one,” the Scripture saith,
“And him alone I’ll own in death.”
So died the fifth; our watchword brave
Fresh courage to the next one gave:
“Jehovah—terrible is he
Who, Israel, dwells in midst of thee;
He may his awful plans conceal,
But in his time he’ll them reveal.”
So passed the youthful sixth, in dying,
“Jehovah, take me,” meekly sighing.

Assuming now a tender mien
The tyrant pleads: “My boy, you’ve seen
How vain it its to trust in one
Who utmost unconcern has shown.
‘Tis only to respect our law—
I’d put your countrymen in awe;
For Rome, supreme, must be obeyed—
Nor gods nor emperor gainsaid.
The test from thee’s a simple thing—
In front of Jove I’ll drop my ring,
Stoop down and pick it up; no thought
Of inferential change is wrought.”

The bright-cheeked boy, his eyes upturned,
The tyrant’s seeming mercy spurned;
His soul kept free from heathen stains
Breaks forth in rapt prophetic strains:

“Forever reigns our glorious Lord—
Performed shall be his faithful word;
His kingdom raised, while ruined thine
He’ll to oblivion consign
As chastened Israel suffers now,
So shall he purer offerings vow.
His faith in days that have gone by
Endear him to his God most high,
And future glories wait the day
When all mankind shall own his sway;

“But thou might’st save thy soul if He
Were but to show His power to thee.”
He thus to Chaldea’s king made known
His sovereign Lord and God alone.
The prostrate king the world obeyed
And favor found and humbly prayed.
To God’s own folk he mercy showed
And so was blessed in his abode;
But thou, nor truth nor mercy giving,
Are but for greater vengeance living.

“To death!” the raging tyrant cries.
Prevention weak the mother tries,
With arms enfolding makes her plea:
“O let him not be torn from me—
My seventh, my last, my life, my all!
On me let first they vengeance fall.
Sword, come on me, nor let me see
The death of one so dear to me!”

“Nay, nay,” the scoffer made reply,
“Your law forbids that you should die;
‘Ye dare not slay the dam that day
Ye take the offspring’s life away.’”

“Thou scourge of man, thou hand of God!
Thy sins thy guilty soul shall load,
Till down to depths thou shalt be driven,
Transcending all that fell from heaven.

But go, my son, when Abra’m thou
In blissful peace shalt meet, avow
Superior reverence to me—
For I gave seven, but one gave he—
But tempted was his faith when tried,
See mine performed—my Isaacs died.

“What shall I add?” Her reason flown,
Why should she linger here alone—
Wandering unguarded, heedless, fell
She whom her Lord had honored well.

Has Judah now no valiant dame
That might such awful honors claim?
For answer: In my northern home
You’ll see, ere wintry weather come,
The fields the cheery flowers adorn,
Bejeweled bright at early morn;
Then fierce the driving, biting storm
Will bare the meads of every form
That spring and summer spread around
So lavish on the fertile ground.
But brightly then the heather bell
Purple the hills I love so well.
When dangerous foxgloves, crimson clover
Lie hid till winter storms are over;
The bloom upon the Arcadian hills
Is blown by that which verdure kills.

If Judah’s winter comes again,
Her hero dames shall bloom amain.

Collect for the Day
May the source of peace send peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved. Amen.



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