- Isaiah during Advent,
- Psalms during the Christmas season,
- the Wisdom books between Christmas and Lent,
- the major and minor prophets during Lent,
- the whole New Testament during the Easter season (starting with Acts during the octave of Easter,
- and the Pentateuch and historical books during Ordinary Time.
In some Catholic versions of the Bible, 1 and 2 Maccabees are included before the book of Job, but the little Bible on my bedside table is the Revised Standard Edition which places those books in their chronological order at the very end of the Old Testament. It seems odd not to have the Old Testament end with the traditional last verses: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse" (Mal. 4: 5-6). Why would anyone tamper with such a clear segue into the New Testament?
But the historical books of Maccabees offers another segue into the New Testament, in the struggle of the Jews against their Hellenistic overlords.
"Now Judas [Maccabeus] heard of the fame of the Romans, that they were very strong and were well-disposed toward all who made an alliance with them, that they pledged friendship to those who came to them, and that they were very strong. Men told him of their wars and of the brave deeds which they were doing among the Gauls, how they had defeated them and forced them to pay tribute, and what they had done in the land of Spain to get control of the silver and gold mines there, and how they had gained control of the whole region by their planning and patience, even though the place was far distant from them. They also subdued the kings who came against them from the ends of the earth, until they crushed them and inflicted great disaster upon them; the rest paid them tribute every years. Philip, and Perseus kind of the Macedonians, and the others who rose up against them, they crushed in battle and conquered. ... The remaining kingdoms and islands, as many as ever opposed them, they destroyed and enslaved; but with their friends and those who rely on them they have kept friendship. They have subdued kings far and near, and as many as have heard of their fame have feared them. Those whom they wish to help and make kings, they make kings, and those whom they wish they depose; and they have been greatly exalted. Yet for all this not one of them has put on a crown or worn purple as a mark of pride, but they have built for themselves a senate chamber, and every day three hundred and twenty senators constantly deliberate concerning the people, to govern them well. They trust one man each year to rule over them and to control all their land; they all heed the one man, and there is no envy or jealousy among them" (1 Mac. 8:1-5, 11-16)
Judas sends a delegation to make a treaty of friendship with Rome, rather in the way that one might approach the Godfather for his protection, and the Romans are pleased to grant their friendship, if not their immediate military support.
Contrast, now, the beginning of infancy narrative in Luke:
"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Lk. 2:1-2).
Or, in the next chapter, the beginning of Jesus's ministry:
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness..." (Lk. 3:1-2).
The Maccabees combined a zeal for the religion of their fathers with a zeal for regional power. An alliance with Rome seemed mutually beneficial and even noble. The description of the Romans in Maccabees (ca. 100 BC) makes them sound like the ideal men: ambitious for their country, but free and independent as citizens. Who wouldn't want to be allied with such a power?
The kingdoms of the world crumble. The Hasmonean dynasty established by the Maccabees, rulers of an independent kingdom of Israel, devolves into a mess of infighting, and when Rome is appealed to, Pompey arrives in 63 AD. After some conflict, the kingdom of Israel is demoted to a client state of Rome, from which it never regains its independence.
And the glorious ideal of Rome? 44 BC sees the assassination of Julius Caesar, kicking off a civil war that ended with Octavian assuming the title of Emperor in 31 BC. As Augustus Caesar, he put on a crown. He wore the purple as a mark of pride. The glorious Romans admired by the Maccabees eventually ordered a taxation census of their conquered territory under the governor Quirinius. (The date of the census was 6 AD, when Rome assumed direct control of Judea, although Luke places it about 10 years earlier, ca. 6 BC.) Opposition to this census resulted in the Zealot movement, responsible for many uprisings, and eventually to the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD.
In the midst of all this, a baby is born to a young Jewish girl, insignificant descendant of the once great Davidic dynasty, now only a memory. As Bishop Robert Barron points out, against the might and the armies of the emperor are arrayed the hosts of heaven who herald the baby. But they don't fight. Eventually that baby, now grown, stands bleeding and humiliated before the Roman governor and tells him, "My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from this world" (Jn. 18:36). The kingdoms of the world are passing away. The power of Rome is chronologically more distant from us than David was from Mary. But the kingdom not of this world endures, and we celebrate its advent today.