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If the Mother of the Maccabees Knew of Atoms

Social media shoves us all up in each other’s faces in unprecedented ways. Where national politics was once metered in through newspapers and the evening news, now people of all ages have access to global details of immeasurable variety. Through the internet, we can see what friends on other continents had for dinner. We have a finger incessantly on the pulse of global events, from terrorism to natural disasters to scandals in the Catholic Church we never wanted to admit happen.

To whatever extent this data dump causes constant anxiety, and constant anxiety upsets brain chemical equilibrium, I have not quite figured out how this torrent of affairs will play out. When I manage to get my nose out of my screen and step away, however, I often think of the Jewish mother of the seven sons in Second Book of Maccabees. She looked upon a different world, but I feel a camaraderie with her.

Her story goes back to about 168–166 years before the birth of Christ. Her people, the Maccabees, led a rebellion against the Seleucid Empire, a flourishing center of Hellenistic culture. The state was ruled by Antiochus IV who as king named himself Epiphanes, a Greek name for “god manifest.” Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the god-king, wanted to take Judaea from Egypt so he could unite a vast and diverse empire and create a religion for his people in the same spirit of Greek civilization espoused by Alexander the Great.

The Jewish people of the Maccabees held a worldview incompatible with Antiochus’s vision. Their beliefs were simple and based the monotheistic laws of God passed down by Moses. They rejected Hellenism. They rejected nature worship. They did not deify kings of vast empires. They worshiped the Creator of the universe.

Fearing disobedience, Antiochus sought to eradicate the Jewish religion. He forbade Jewish religious practices, such as the offering of sacrifices, the observance of the Sabbath, and circumcision, and he punished anyone who would not submit to his authority. The Maccabees mother and her seven sons were arrested for refusing to eat the flesh of swine. The Bible story begins when the king had them beaten.

“What do you intend to ask and learn from us?” the eldest son said to the king. “For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.” This made the king angry. He ordered large caldrons to be heated in fire, cut out the tongue of the eldest, scalped him, chopped off his hands and feet, and had the boy fried alive, while still breathing, right in front of his mother and brothers.

The next son likewise refused to eat pork, and he too met the same fate as his brother. As he took his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” The third son even stuck out his tongue to be cut off and stretched out his hands to be butchered because he knew he would get them back again.

Before the fourth son was murdered, he spoke of resurrection too. The fifth spoke of his people and told the king that he may have power among men, but he would someday perish while the people of God would not be forsaken. The sixth son warned the king that he would not be spared punishment if he attempted to fight against God.

What did the mother do while her sons were murdered one by one? The narrator says she bore it admirably with honor and courage because of her hope in the Lord. Her “woman’s reasoning” was thus to her sons:

I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again . . .

With only the seventh son left, Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to back off. He promised the mother to make the boy a rich and happy man, even a friend, if he would pledge allegiance to Antiochus. The king pleaded with the mother to counsel the son to save himself, but the mother bent to her last child and urged him in her native tongue to look at Heaven and Earth and see that God made everything out of nothing, including mankind. She told him to have no fear and join his brothers until they were all united again.

The seventh son interrupted his mother and turned to the king. “What are you waiting for?” Then he gave a magnificent speech about the almighty, all-seeing God of his Fathers and the wrath that would come upon the nation. Nevertheless, the god-manifest king, in the name of the creative, progressive, and the great spirit of Hellenism, punished the last son more cruelly than all his brothers. The mother? The scripture just says she died, but it does not matter how. There is no worse fate for a mother than to watch her children suffer such torture.

For a long time, this story made me angry. Why did she not tell her kids to eat the damn pork? Seriously? I eat bacon all the time. It is not like eating pork is a deadly sin.

The murders were not about food though. They were about power. The flesh of swine was only a symbolic scapegoat. The more I thought about that mother, the more I realized that we are alike in many ways. For one, we both have seven children, though five of mine are daughters. My children have not been brutally murdered all in one day, nothing like that, but sometimes it seems that as a Catholic mother I too face a culture of absurdities at the hands of humans who think themselves manifest gods. I look out at the world through the internet, and I get scared. When I teach the countercultural moral expectations of the Church to my kids, sometimes I think I am making about as much sense as telling them to die before eating pork.

As hard as I try to hang on to my babies, some grown, some adolescent, some still young, I worry that they will be consumed and destroyed by modern monsters like drug addiction, suicide, cutting, depression, sexual abuse, bullying, and nihilism, in other words, being fried alive in a cauldron so slowly they will not even realize they are dying. And I do not want to bear it admirably with honor and courage and whispering advice, because of hope in the Lord! I do not want to stand there and watch them perish. I want to panic. I want to fight.

I have this thing I do. I imagine that I sit down with the Maccabees mother at a table suspended above time and space in one of those blank white rooms of science fiction dreamery. We each have coffee, she in her robes and sandals and me in my black turtleneck and boots.

“How did you stay so calm?” I ask her.

“Like I said,” she replies, “the order in nature and life itself make it obvious that God is in charge.” The Maccabees mother, I always think, has an astonishingly scientific worldview.

“I get it,” I say. “You view nature the same way a chemist does. You think that if the Creator of the world can make atoms and swirl them all together to produce the sun, clouds, trees, and the children in our womb, then he knows what he is doing, and if we keep the faith everything will be okay in the end.”

She nods and says, “Atoms?”

I say, “Yes, the elements, like you said, within each of us that God sets in order. Do you want me to tell you about them?” She, of course, does.

I tell her how there is now evidence that elementary particles expanded from a singularity about 14 billion years ago and that elements form in stars. I show her a periodic table and explain that for a long time the universe was just the first two, 75% hydrogen and 25% helium. We identify elements by the number of protons they have. Protons are small positively charged particles in the nucleus (center) of the atom. Hydrogen has one proton. Helium has two because two hydrogens fuse to make helium (1+1=2). Astronomers now measure about 74 percent of ordinary matter in the universe to be hydrogen, 24 percent helium, and the remaining two percent the rest of the known elements.

She wants me to tell her where the other elements came from.

“They continue to form in stars as more nuclei fuse,” I say. “Hydrogen nuclei fuse to produce helium and release energy, making the core of the star hot and dense. This is how a star, such as our sun, spends most of its life. When the hydrogen is nearly gone, the core contracts, and helium nuclei with two protons fuse to produce beryllium, which has four protons (2+2=4). If beryllium collides with another helium nucleus, carbon forms. Carbon has six protons (4+2=6). If carbon fuses with another helium, oxygen forms with eight protons (6+2=8). Because helium has a unique stability, it hangs around long enough for these elements to form, hence there is a curiously high abundance of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen—the elements necessary for life on Earth. Heavier elements fuse until the star cores are mostly iron. The stars collapse under the gravity until they explode. Elements heavier than iron fuse in the final moments of the stars’ lives.”

Her mind is blown, and she knows where this is going. “And all these elements come from Heaven to the center of the world to make Earth?”

“Well,” I say, “the Earth is not the center of the cosmos but rather a planet orbiting in a solar system whose sun is a star in an arm of a spiral cluster of 200 billion stars that make up a galaxy among billions of galaxies.” I say that it is amazing the whole universe seems to exist for us on this seemingly insignificant speck.

I tell her that a Greek philosopher named Democritus, who lived 200 years before the Maccabees revolution, used the word ἄτομον (atomon) to describe indivisible particles. I tell her that Democritus taught that everything is the result of natural laws, and we agree that this is a faulty conclusion because—call it a woman’s reasoning—if everything is just matter, then we still do not have the answer for who made the matter, who prescribed the order, or who made life.

I recount the discoveries in only the last two hundred years of humanity, John Dalton, J. J. Thompson, Max Plank, Robert Millikan, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Louis de Broglie, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger.

I explain that today properties of elements throughout the universe are understood as the result of electrons, the negatively charged particles, in defined orbitals around the nucleus much like musical strings vibrating together in unison in a symphony. I tell her about quantum numbers and how they describe the relationship between electrons and protons. I tell her how this knowledge allows us to master nature and develop technology, that we can now communicate around the globe with satellites and send emails, photos, and movies because we can control electrons so well.

I tell her how the very oxygen molecules her sons breathed came from photosynthesis in chloroplasts that evolved from bacteria.

I tell her how we know a great deal about how children form in the womb, how we think of the beginning of a new individual as a cellular conversation between gametes made of elements—

She interrupts me, “You mean life on Earth is interconnected at the atomic level, drawn from the entire cosmos since the beginning of time?”

At the same time we say, “Praise God!”

Then she asks me why anyone in my time worries at all—and I tell her that I guess we just forget to appreciate the order in nature that is right in front of us when we use the tools to access the information that leads us to despair. She thinks that because of modern science we have more reason today to trust in the faithfulness of God the Creator than people in her time ever did. And I agree.

Then I tell the Maccabees mother the good news, that in the fullness of time a Savior came, Christ, the king of the Jews, an embryo formed in the womb of his mother, made of elements, our Lord, the perfect human, both in His divinity and His humanity, truly God and truly man, begotten of the Father, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary . . .

She finishes, “ . . . according to the purpose of the Creator who works all things according to his will.” She knew all of this already, of course, including the part about atoms.

I tell the mother of the Maccabees that Mary also watched her Son die a senseless and brutal death at the hands of people who did not see the bigger picture, and that he did, in fact, conquer death, that he rose and ascended into heaven, and that Mary, given to us by Christ, wants her children united with her forever too because she is the Holy Mother of All the Living. I smile and say that Heaven and Earth resound the hymn for this queen, all creation echoing: Salve Regina!

Then I tell her I have to go and thank her for teaching me that if our hearts and minds are large enough to hope, we can trust that the whole of creation is forever held in the hands of its loving Creator. She reminds me that her people went on to lead a fight for justice and that I will figure out my purpose too. She tells me to have no fear and prays with me until we meet again. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Editorial Statement: CLJ will explore the latest developments in the relationship between science and religion throughout September 2018. Special emphasis will be put upon exploring the demise of the conflictual model of science and religion. Our series is a celebration of the McGrath Institute’s Science & Religion Initiative winning an Expanded Reason Award from the Ratzinger Foundation and the University Francisco de Vitoria (Madrid, Spain). Posts in the series will be collected here (click link) as they are published. 

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Featured Image: Attavante degli Attavanti, Martyrdom of the Seven Hebrew brothers, c. 1450; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Stacy A. Trasancos

Stacy A. Trasancos is the Director of Publications for Bishop Joseph Strickland’s St. Philip Institute in Tyler, TX. She has a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College & Seminary.  She is the author of Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Ave Maria, 2016).