Commentary on 2 Macc 7:1-2, 9-14 or Phil 3:8-14; Ps 30; John 17:20-26
The Gospel reading is part of Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers. It comes from his long discourse during the Last Supper as given to us in John’s gospel. In this particular part of the prayer, he is praying not for those disciples who are with him at the supper but “for those who will believe in me through their word”.
Jesus prays that “they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me”. For this is the way that people will come to recognise the true identity of Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus is not simply to believe in him and lead a good life. It is not to see the Church as some kind of organisation outside of me but to which I go to get the ‘graces’ I need to be a good person, to keep the commandments and as a place where I can carry out my ‘religious obligations’ and in the end ‘save my soul’.
To be a follower of Jesus is essentially to be a follower with and through others. The Christian life is essentially communal. And Jesus is saying here that the most potent witness we can give of who he is is that we who claim to follow him do so as part of a fellowship. It is said that in the early Church there was a saying: “See those Christians how they love one another!” That was one of the most striking characteristics to the pagan eye, namely, that people who came from different ethnic and social backgrounds could live together in such harmony. This was something strange to societies which strongly and defensively identified with their own group.
Jesus had said this earlier during the same discourse. In giving his disciples a “new” commandment, he had told them to “love one another as I have loved you”. And, he continued, “by this will all people know that you are my followers: that you have love one for another”. This was to be the defining mark of the Christian – to be a ‘with-person’ or an ‘inter-person’. There is no room for individualism, going it alone to Jesus. This is a very relevant message for our individualistic, self-seeking, post-modern times. The sufferings of the martyrs we are remembering today were primarily because of the bitter divisions between different groups who claimed to follow the Gospel we have just heard. It brought great suffering on both sides and there are traces of it still in Ireland. Different understandings of the Gospel message are perhaps unavoidable but we must never forget the overriding call of love and fellowship as the primary sign of our following of Christ. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.”
One of the alternative First Readings is from the Second Book of Maccabees. It is from the passage where seven brothers are tempted by the Syrian King Antiochus to eat pork and thus disown their Jewish faith with the promise of all kinds of privileges if they do. They all refuse and one by one are executed in each other’s presence and in the presence of their mother, who secretly encourages them to remain faithful. Today’s reading contains the words that she spoke to each of them. She tells them that their physical death will not be the end but the doorway to a much better life: “Since it is the creator of the universe who shapes each one’s beginning, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.” Words which can be equally well applied to the 17 people we remember today. They disregarded their own temporal interests to identify themselves with their crucified Saviour, confident they would rise with him. “This day you will be with me.”
In the second alternative First Reading which is from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, he tells them that he regards everything worth giving up for the sake of knowing Jesus his Lord. When he had Jesus he had everything he needed. And he concludes: “Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” This was the spirit that drove these men and women. May we have some of their spirit, too.