The Irish Martyrs – Readings

Commentary on 2 Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14; Psalm 30; John 17:11-19

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 for his disciples who are with him at the supper that God:

…protect them in your name that you have given me…

Jesus prays:

…that they may be one, as we are one.

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, their own tribe.

Jesus had said this earlier during the same discourse. In giving his disciples a “new” commandment, he had told them:

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34)

And, he continued:

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

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.

One of the possible First Readings for today’s memorial 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 encourages them to remain faithful. In a verse not included in today’s reading, she tells says that the physical death of her sons will not be the end, but the doorway to a much better life:

…the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, in his mercy gives life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws. (Macc 7:23)

These words which can be equally well applied to the 17 martyrs we remember today. They disregarded their own temporal interests to identify themselves with their crucified Saviour, confident they would rise with him:

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
(Luke 23:43)

May we have some of their spirit, too.

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