Over the years I have seen many pictures of martyrs who are about to be put to death and have always been amazed that none of them looks the least bit troubled or afraid. Indeed, although they are about to suffer a cruel and violent death, they look remarkably at peace.
Today’s reading from the second book of Maccabees helps us understand why. It’s the riveting, unforgettable story of a mother and her seven sons, all of whom “were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king” because they refused to violate God’s law by eating pork. Six of the sons have already died from the king’s brutality, but the youngest is still alive. In an attempt to get him to betray his faith, King Antiochus promises this last surviving son that he will lavish him with riches and power and status—as well as friendship—if he will only transfer his loyalty and obedience from God to the king. The mother, who saw six of her seven sons die that day, exhorts her one remaining child not to abandon his faith for the king’s empty promises, but she has no reason to fear. Her son, like all the martyrs, knows how hopeless and meaningless our lives would be if the only way we could have them is by betraying everything we believe.
King Antiochus had no power over this mother and her seven sons even though he could kill them because they all knew what the king would never know. They knew that they had been given life by God in the beginning, had been sustained in life by God each day, and would be guided by God through death to a life that never ends. This is why the king with all his threats looks both weak and foolish, and why the young man, knowing he will die, can fearlessly proclaim: “What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command.”
What is true for the martyrs is true for us. If we hold fast to our faith, we will always have life, even when it comes time to die.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the Passionist Family.