August 1, 2017

The Maccabees as Christian Martyrs (St. Gregory the Theologian)

By St. Gregory the Theologian

The Maccabees: the festival today* is indeed in their honor, though not many recognize them because their martyrdom antedates Christ.** Yet they deserve universal recognition for their unswerving devotion to the ways of their fathers. Consider what they, whose martyrdom preceded Christ's passion, would have achieved if they had been persecuted after the time of Christ and were able to emulate his death on our behalf. If they were able to display valor of this magnitude without the benefit of such a model, how could they not have gained in heroic stature had they undertaken their trial with the example of Christ before them? Not one of those who attained perfection before the coming of Christ accomplished his goal without faith in Christ. While this statement is both arcane and even to a certain extent mystic, I for one consider it very persuasive, as do all who love Christ. For although the Logos was openly proclaimed in his own era, he was made known even before to the pure of mind, as is evident from the large number of persons who achieved honor before this day.

Such noble figures, then, are not to be overlooked because they lived before the time of the cross, but should rather be acclaimed for having lived in accordance with the cross, and are entitled to the honor that words bestow, not with the object of enhancing their reputation - how could it be? Their exploits have secured them renown - but to glorify those who sing their praises and inspire those in the audience to emulate their valor, goading them as it were by commemoration into matching it. Who were these people? Where did they come from? What kind of culture and education did they have so as to rise to such a peak of valor and renown that they are both honored annually with these festal processions and every heart treasures their glory in greater measure than these visible expressions indicate? The studious and diligent will find the answers to these questions in the book*** about them that advances the view that reason is dominant over the emotions and has the power to incline us in both directions, virtue or vice. The author focuses on the struggle of the Maccabees but includes a number of other examples as well to corroborate his thesis.****


* Delivered December 362 in Nazianzus.

** Although the Maccabean martyrs were known and cited by early Christian writers along with other Old Testament figures such as Daniel, they do not appear to have been singled out for special veneration prior to this sermon.

*** Gregory is referring to 4 Maccabees, formerly known under the title On the Supremacy of Reason and ascribed to Josephus, which elaborates on the story told in 2 Macc. 6:18-7:42.

**** 4 Macc. 1:7-8. These examples include Moses, Joseph, Jacob, David, Daniel, and the Three Children.

From Oration 15, "In Praise of the Maccabees", PG 35.912A-33A.