Understanding the Force of Pork

Alexander the Great

At the end of the church year, we read from the end of the history of the Old Covenant, the books of the Maccabees.*

Not easy to read. To imagine the suffering of so many innocent people, especially a gentle old man and an aging mother.

Anybody remember how it all came to pass? Who took over the Holy Land when he conquered the Persian empire? Alexander the Great, who came from…Greece.

Alexander left his empire to his generals. The great-great-great-grandson of one of his generals demanded that the Jewish people abandon the religion.

The Greek authorities tried to break the peoples’ spirit by forcing them to eat unclean meat. Everybody in the world knew that the Jews did not eat pork, because the Law of Moses prohibited it. So the authorities ordered the most prominent Jews to eat pork, on pain of death.

spider_rollNow, we might reasonably ask: Why would anyone try to force someone to eat anything in particular? (other than your parents, trying to get you to eat your vegetables) If I force you to eat pork, or sushi, or cheese whiz, or any food, what good does that do me? Doesn’t make any sense.

Except: There is one way that we can understand it, one way that we can even relate. When people do wrong, as a group, and they want everyone to accept their wrongdoing as if it were normal, they will do violence just to force people to go along with it. They will do violence even to the people quietly minding their own business, trying to do the right thing, trying to do God’s will.

The faithful Jewish martyrs we read about at Holy Mass never picked a fight. They sought the Lord, hoping in the promises of the prophets. When the new Greek rules came along, they simply refused to do something they knew was wrong.

The faithful Jews willingly paid the ultimate price, rather than commit a sin. May the Lord give us clarity and strength like that.

I Maccabees stands in relation to II Maccabees not as I Kings stands in relation to II Kings, but rather as I Kings stands in relation to I Chronicles. 🙂

Also: Happy 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address!

John-17 St.-Lucy-Day-Crown Candles

St Lucy crown

Father, I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:22)

I have given them the glory you gave me. The ‘them’ is us: we who believe in Christ.

The ‘I’ is Christ, true God and true man.

The ‘glory’ is the glory which God has given to the Christ. What is this?

From eternity unto eternity, the Father begets the divinity of the Son, the unlimited glory of God.

We, being limited creatures, cannot receive this glory. So He cannot mean this.

From the moment of His conception in the Virgin’s womb, the Christ received from God the fullness of grace, the human share in divinity: wisdom, knowledge, perfect love, indomitable fortitude—the full spiritual equipage of the holy man, the man perfectly united with the Creator and Governor of all.

From the moment of our Holy Baptism, Christ shares this grace with us. It grows in our souls through our pilgrim lives as we persevere in faith, do good, and avoid evil.

princeBefore dawn on Easter Sunday, the Christ received from God the permanent re-invigoration of His human body. This, too, we will receive–on the last day.

Why? Why has the Christ given us the glory that God gave Him?

So that we, His believers, may share the unity of the Father and Son. So that we may share the Holy Spirit.

Again, we cannot share this as God, because we are not God.

But we can share it as divine love poured into human hearts. As Christ’s Heart is, so can our hearts be: Moved altogether with love for the truly beautiful and truly good. Impervious to evil and death. Alive with the same life that made the whole world, keeps it made, and guides it to its fulfillment.

That the Father and Son are one in the Holy Spirit is the foundation of everything else. That foundational love that makes things exist—as opposed to not exist—that very love can be in our hearts now and forever. That very love–nothing less. The love that is the foundation of the earth, of the universe.

Prince, in his heyday; Prince rocking ‘When Doves Cry’ in 1984, would have nothing on us. Michael Jordan in his heyday; Jordan knocking down 69 points in one game would have nothing on us. F. Scott Fitzgerald, sitting down and writing The Great Gatsby like an ethereal poem of pathos, would have nothing on us. Alexander the Great, ruling from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas, would have nothing on us.

To be among those for whom the Lord prays in the words of John 17 is to be a burning candle in the St.-Lucy-Day crown of the world.

St. Paul’s Favorite Church



Brothers and sisters:  Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.  If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better.  Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.

(from the first chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians)


The second readings at Sunday Mass generally come from one of St. Paul’s letters to the early Christian churches.  Through this past summer, we have read from his letter to the Christians in Rome.  Today we begin reading from St. Paul’s relatively short letter to the Philippian Christians.  We will continue reading from this letter in our second reading at Sunday Mass for the next three Sundays.


On his second missionary journey, St. Paul traveled throughout Asia Minor—what is now Turkey—visiting local churches and establishing new ones.  When he had reached the west coast, St. Paul received a vision in a dream.  He saw a Greek man saying to him, “Pass over and help us.”  So the Apostle decided to set sail for Europe.  Sts Timothy and Luke were with him.


The northern part of Greece, where the Apostles landed, is called Macedonia.  In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great departed to conquer the world from the military city named after his father, King Philip.  When the Romans conquered Philippi two centuries later, they found the place to be so beautiful that many of the soldiers retired there.  Philippi became a Roman colony, and by the time of St. Paul, the Philippians enjoyed the full rights of Roman citizens, just like the citizens of Tarsus, St. Paul’s home city in southeast Asia Minor.


When St. Paul arrived in a new city, his custom was to go to the synagogue on the sabbath and preach the gospel.  But there were so few Jews in Philippi there was no synagogue.  St. Paul found the city’s small group of Jews at their meeting place by the river.  Many of them were immediately converted to Christ.


In Asia Minor the Apostle had been well-received by the pagans but persecuted by the Jews; in Macedonia it was the other way around.  He drove a demon out of a pagan girl who had been able to tell fortunes.  The men who made money from her exploits were not pleased.  They had St. Paul beaten and thrown into prison.


At midnight an earthquake shook the prison, leaving the doors open, but the Apostle remained inside to evangelize the guards rather than run away.  This won over the town authorities, and they released him.  St. Paul then left Philippi a free man, and he headed west and south to continue founding churches.  It would be over five years before he was able to return to Philippi.


A quick read of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians immediately shows us that the church in Philippi was St. Paul’s favorite.  In this letter, he does not correct his readers like he corrected the Corinthians, Galatians, and Thessalonians.  Rather, the Apostle thanks God for the Philippian Christians and congratulates them for their generosity.  The letter to the Philippians is permeated from beginning to end with the sweetness of holy love.  It has been called the ‘jewel’ or the ‘pearl’ of St. Paul’s writings.


This is all the more remarkable considering that St. Paul was languishing in another prison when he wrote to the Philippians.  Perhaps he was imprisoned in Rome, perhaps in Ephesus; we cannot say for sure.  What is clear is that, wherever the prison was, he had enough freedom in this prison to preach the gospel to his fellow-prisoners and to receive visitors.


One of the Philippian Christians, Epaphroditus, had come to St. Paul with a monetary offering from the Philippians.  Epaphroditus planned to stay with Paul in prison and take care of him.  But Ephroditus took deathly ill.  As soon as he was healthy enough to travel, St. Paul sent him back to Philippi, and he gave him a letter to take back home.  This is the letter we are reading from these four Sundays.


In the beautiful short section of the letter we heard this today, St. Paul put everything in perspective, including his imprisonment and the dangers he faced in his mission.  He considered the whole situation in the light of his personal union with Christ.  The Apostle reasoned this way:  If he was faithful to Christ, then the Lord would be glorified no matter what happened, whether St. Paul lived or died, suffered or prospered.  All that mattered was doing the Lord’s will.


This message can put everything in perspective for us, too.  The best thing is always to strive to do God’s will.  If God’s will means death, so be it.  If it means fruitful labor for the kingdom of God here on earth, so be it.


We are not the masters of the grand plan.  We do not measure out the length of our lives.  God does the measuring.  Our role is to live each day God gives us for His glory, setting our minds to our tasks, and giving generously in any way we can.


If we fall away from the will of God and sin, then we humbly confess it to a priest, do penance, and move on.  The Lord is more patient and merciful with us than we imagine.  He can even bring good out of our mistakes and failures.


All he asks is that we do the best we can to do our part each day.  He will take care of the rest.  If we can truly say with St. Paul, “for me, life is Christ,” then we have begun to live in eternity already.  Everything we do here on earth is simply a matter of preparing things for the glory to come.



Mt. Hermon

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”


The Lord Jesus lived almost all of His pilgrim life near the Sea of Galilee, which is 75 miles north of Jerusalem.  From the shore of the sea, if you look further to the north, in the distance you can see the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hermon, which is in Syria.  The northern boundary of the Holy Land is about 20 miles north of Galilee, at the foot of the mountain.  Water from the melting snow flows out of caves there.  Further south, this stream becomes the Jordan River.


Alexander the Great conquered the Holy Land three centuries before the coming of Christ.  The Greeks were convinced that the foot of Mt. Hermon was a holy place.  They thought that their god Pan lived in one of the caves, so they made it a temple and worshiped there.  It would not be surprising if faithful Jews at the time of Christ referred to these caves as the “gates of hell,” because the pagans worshipped evil spirits in them.


When the Romans conquered the Greek Empire, they eventually partitioned the Holy Land into three territories.  They gave one to each of the three sons of King Herod the Great.  To his son Philip, the Romans granted the northern territory, including the caves at the foot of Mt. Hermon.  Philip wanted to ingratiate himself with the Romans, so he built a city in honor of the emperor at the site.  He named the city after the emperor and after himself, Ceasarea-Philippi.


Very few people practiced the Jewish religion in Philip’s kingdom; it was mainly pagan territory.  There were no Pharisees there.  So when the Lord Jesus led His chosen disciples up into Philip’s territory, he was taking them on a vacation, away from the tension and controversy in Galilee.


The Lord brought His disciples up to Caesarea-Philippi to help them prepare for what was to come.  This vacation in the north was the decisive turning point in all of their lives.  Up to this time, the Lord had been revealing His true identity little by little, with flashes of power and wisdom here and there.  He had become very well-known, but no one understood Who He truly is.  He was an object of curiosity to the crowds.  His enemies were determined to destroy Him.  His destiny was about to unfold.


So the Lord led His chosen ones up close to the ancient pagan temple at the foot of the great northern peak.  It may be that Christ led Peter, James, and John up the mountain here and was transfigured before them, showing them a glimpse of His divine glory.  The Transfiguration probably happened on Mt. Thabor, south of Galilee, but it may have happened on Mt. Hermon.  Regardless, Christ had led His chosen disciples to a place and to a moment where they could contemplate with clear minds the truth about Who their Master truly is.


The drama was heightened by the fact that they stood at the ‘gates of hell,’ in front of the creepy cave where the pagans worshiped their demon.  Here the Lord declared that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church He was founding.  All the evil, confusion, malice, worldliness, and pettiness which His disciples would inevitably face was not going to overcome them.  By going to His death and rising again, Christ was to bring about the victory of goodness, mercy, and truth.  He was going to go down to Jerusalem and suffer and die in order to open the gates of heaven.  The long, dark night of sin which the world had lived through up to that point—the night of paganism and confusion about God—that night was going to come to an end.


The city of Casarea-Philippi no longer stands.  The area is inhabited by only a few villagers now, and they say that the cave where the pagans worshiped is haunted.  Below the cave there is a beautiful park where the freshwater streams from the snow-capped mountaintop come gushing out and begin to form the Jordan River.  The ruins of the pagan shrines are still in the cliff above, broken statues and columns.  I can tell you from firsthand experience that the haunted cave is seriously creepy.


When I was there in February, the Archbishop who led our pilgrimage had us recite the Nicene Creed together there.  We declared the truth about Jesus of Nazareth together at the very place where St. Peter first proclaimed our faith:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”


If we are armed with this faith of the Catholic Church, then the gates of hell cannot withstand us.  We will break them down.  We will rescue souls ensnared by the devil by our works of love and our witness to the truth.