Letter Xliv Concerning the Maccabees but to whom Written is Unknown.
Concerning the Maccabees But to Whom Written is Unknown. [69]

He relies to the question why the Church has decreed a festival to the Maccabees alone of all the righteous under the ancient law.

1. Fulk, Abbot of Epernay, had already written to ask me the same question as your charity has addressed to your humble servant by Brother Hescelin. I have put off replying to him, being desirous to find, if possible, some statement in the Fathers about this which was asked, which I might send to him, rather than to reply by some new opinion of my own. But as I do not come upon one, in the meantime I reply to each of you with my thoughts upon the matter, on condition that if you discover anything better and more probable in your reading, conversation, or by your meditations, you will not omit to share it with me in turn. You ask, then, why it seemed good to the Fathers to decree that an annual commemoration, with veneration equal to our martyrs, should be solemnly made in the Church, by a certain peculiar privilege, to the Maccabees alone out of all the ancient saints? If I should say that having made proof of the same courage as those, they were worthy now of the same honours, that would, perhaps, answer the question why they were included, but not why they alone were; while it is quite evident that there were others amongst the ancients who suffered with equal zeal for righteousness, but yet have not attained to be reverenced with equal solemnities. If I reply that the latter have not received the same honours as our martyrs because, although their valour deserved it, the time when they lived deprived them of it, why was not the same consideration applied also to the Maccabees, if, indeed, they, too, on account of the era when they lived, did not at once enter into the light of Heaven, but descended into the darkness of Hades? For the Firstbegotten from the dead, He who opened to believers the kingdom of Heaven, the Lamb of the tribe of Judah, who opens and no more shuts, at Whose entrance with complete authority it was sung by the heavenly powers: Lift up your heads, O ye gates, avid be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in (Ps. xxiv.7), -- He had not yet appeared. If on that account it appears unsuitable to commemorate with joy the passing away of those which was not a passage of glory and of joy, why was there an exception made for the Maccabees? Or if they obtained favour on account of the courage which they displayed, why was not the same favour extended to those others? Or ought it to be said, in order to explain this difference, that if the martyrs of the ancient law, as well as those of the new law, have suffered for the same cause of religion, yet they did not suffer in the same condition with those who have attained to the glory of martyrdom? It is agreed that all the martyrs, whether of the Old or the New Testament, equally suffered for the sake of religion; but there is a distinction, because the one class suffered because they held it, the other because they censured those who held it not; the one because they would not desert it, the other because they declared that those would perish who deserted it, and to sum up in a word, that in which the two differ, perseverance in the faith has done in our martyrs that which zeal for the faith has done in those of the ancient law. The Maccabees are alone among the ancient martyrs, because they possessed not only the same cause as the new martyrdom, but also, as I have said, the form of it; and rightly, therefore, they have attained the same glory and fame as the new martyrs of the Church. For like our martyrs, they were urged to pour libations to false gods, to renounce the law of their fathers, and even to transgress the commandments of God, and like them they resisted and died.

2. Not so did Isaiah or Zecharias, or even that great prophet, John the Baptist, die; of whom the first is said to have been sawn asunder, the second slain between the temple and the altar (S. Matt. xxiii.25), and the third beheaded in prison. If you ask by whom? It was by the wicked and irreligious. For what cause? For justice and religion. In what manner? For confessing and openly upholding these. They openly upheld the truth before those who hated it, and thus drew upon themselves the hatred which caused their death. That which the unrighteous and wicked persecuted was not so much religion in itself as those who brought it before them, nor was their object to attack the righteousness of others, but to remain undisturbed in their own unrighteousness. It is one thing to seize upon the good things of another, and another to defend one's own goods; to persecute the truth, and not to be willing to follow it one's self; to grudge at believers, and to be angry at their reproofs; to stop the mouth of those who confess their faith, and not to be able to bear patiently the taunts of those who contradict. Thus Herod sent and seized John. Wherefore! Because he preached Christ, or because he was a good and just man? On the contrary, he reverenced him the more on this account, and having heard him, did many things. But it was because John reproached Herod because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; on that account he was bound and beheaded; no doubt he suffered for the truth, but because he urged its interests with zeal, not because he was urged to deny it. This is why the suffering of so great a martyr is observed with less solemnity than those even of far less famous men.

3. It is certain that if the Maccabees had suffered in such a matter, and for such a reason as S. John, there would not have been any mention of them at all. But a confession of the truth, not unlike that of the Christian martyrs, made them like those; and rightly, therefore, a similar veneration follows. Let it not be objected that they did not, like our martyrs, suffer for Christ expressly by name; because it does not affect his status as a martyr whether a person suffers under the Law, on behalf of the observances of the Law, or under grace for the commandments of the Gospel. For it is recognized that each of these equally suffers for the truth, and, therefore, for Christ, who said: I am the Truth (S. John xiv.6). Therefore the Maccabees are more deserving of the honours that have been conferred upon them for the kind of their martyrdom than for the valour displayed in it, since we do not see that the Church has decreed such honour to the righteous of a former time, although they have displayed equal courage on behalf of righteousness, for the time in which they lived. I suppose that it was thought unfit to appoint a day of festival for a death, however laudable, before the Death of Christ, especially since before that saving Passion those who died, instead of entering into joy and glory endured the darkness of the prison-house. The Church then, as I said above, considered that an exception should be made in favour of the Maccabees, since the nature of their martyrdom conferred upon them what the time of their suffering denied to others.

4. Nor them only, but those also who preceded in their death, the Death of Him who was the Life manifest in the flesh, either dying during His life, as Simeon and John the Baptist, or for Him, as the Innocents, we venerate with solemn rites, although they, too, descended into Hades; but for another reason. Thus, in the case of the Innocents, it would be unjust to deprive innocence dying on behalf of righteousness of fame even in the present. John also, knowing that from his day the kingdom of heaven suffered violence, therefore proclaimed, Do penitence, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (S. Matt. iii.2, Vulg.); and, seeing that the Life would immediately follow him, endured death with joy. He, before his death, was careful to inquire from the Lord Himself respecting this, and had the happiness to be informed of it. For when he sent his disciples to ask of Jesus Art Thou He that should come, or are we to look for another? he received for answer, after the enumeration of very many miracles, And blessed is he who shall not be offended in me (S. Matt. xi.3-6). In which answer the Lord intimated that He was about to die, and by such a death as might be to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness. At this word the friend of the Bridegroom went onward rejoicing and with a willing mind, because he could not doubt that the Bridegroom also would speedily come. Therefore he who so joyfully could die merited also to be held in joyful remembrance. And that old man, too, as full of virtues as of days, who when death was already so near said, holding in his arms Him who was the Life, Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation (S. Luke ii.29, 30), as if he had said, I go down without fear into Hades, because I feel that my redemption is so nigh; he, too, who died with such fearless joy and such joyful security rightly deserves to be commemorated with joy in the Church.

5. But on what principle shall a death be accounted joyful which is not accompanied by the joys of heaven? or from whence should a dying person derive joy who was sure that he was going down into the darkness of the prison-house, and yet did not bear with him any certitude, how soon the consolation of a deliverer thence should come to him? Thus it was that when one of the saints heard Set thy house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live, he turned himself to the wall and wept bitterly, and so asked and obtained some deferring of hateful death. Thus also he lamented miserably, saying, I shall go to the gates of the grave; I am deprived of the half of my days (Is. xxxviii.10); and a little after added, I shall not see the Lord in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world (Is. xxxviii.11). Hence also another says: Who shall grant me that Thou wouldest protect me in the grave, that Thou wouldest keep me secret until Thy wrath be passed; that Thou wouldest appoint me a set time and remember me? (Job xiv.13). Israel also said to his sons, Ye will bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave (Gen. xlii.38). What appearance is there in these deaths, of solemn joy, of rejoicing and festival?

6. But our martyrs desire to be unclothed and be with Christ, knowing well that where the Body is there without delay will the eagles be gathered together. There will the righteous rejoice in the sight of God, and be in joy and felicity. There, there, O most blessed Jesus, shall every saint who is delivered from this wicked world be filled speedily with the joy of Thy countenance. There in the habitations of the just resounds for ever one song of joy and salvation: Our soul is delivered as a bird out of the net of the fowler: the net is broken and we are delivered (Ps. cxxiv.7). How could those sing this song of gladness who in Hades sat in darkness and the shadow of death, while as yet there was no Redeemer for them, no Saviour; while the Sun rising from on high, Christ the first fruits of them that slept, had not yet visited us? Rightly, then, does the Church, who has learnt to rejoice with them that rejoice and to weep with them that weep, distinguish, because of the time at which they lived, between those whom she judges equal in valour: and does not think the descent into Hades proper to be followed with equal honour as is the passage into life.

7. Therefore, though the motive makes martyrdom, yet the time and the nature of it determine the difference between martyrdoms. Thus the time in which they lived separates the Maccabees from the martyrs of the new law and joins them with those of the old; but the nature of their martyrdom associates them with the new and divides them from the old. From these causes come the differences of observance with which they are kept in memory in the Church. But that which is common to the whole company of the Saints before God is what the holy prophet declares: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints (Ps. cxvi.15). And why he calls it precious he explains to us: When He has given sleep to His beloved, behold, children, the heritage of the Lord; His reward, the fruit of the womb (Ps. cxxvii.3). Nor must we think that martyrs alone are beloved, since we remember that it was said of Lazarus, Our friend Lazarus sleeps (S. John xi.11), and elsewhere, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord (Apoc. xiv.13). Not those alone who die for the Lord, like the martyrs, but without doubt those also who die in the Lord as confessors are blessed. There are two things, as it seems to me, which make death precious, the life which precedes it and the cause for which it is endured; but more the cause than the life. But when both the cause and the life concur that is the most precious of all.


[69] Such is the title in almost all the MSS. But in one at Cîteaux the Letter is inscribed To Bruno of Cologne, as is believed, on the martyrdom of the Maccabees. In an old edition It is thought to have been written to Hugo of S. Victor.

letter xliii a consolatory letter
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