King Antiochus was not known for his humility. Ruling a territory that stretched from modern-day Turkey all the way to India, Antiochus gave himself the name Epiphanes, meaning “God manifest.” A believer in the superiority of Greek culture—its gods, language, philosophy, and art—Antiochus sought to impose that culture on the diverse peoples of his empire, often by force.
The Jews of Palestine suffered greatly under these policies. Antiochus erected a statue to the Greek god Zeus in the Jewish temple, sprinkled the blood of pigs on copies of the Jewish scriptures and forbade—under pain of death—the rite of circumcision. His policies sparked a violent revolt that is chronicled in First and Second Maccabees.
Today’s reading recounts Antiochus’s reaction to the news that the Jewish rebels have routed his army, torn down the statue of Zeus, and rededicated the temple. Astonished that a small and insignificant people could defeat the armies of a mighty empire, Antiochus fell ill and ultimately died. After his death, that empire descended into civil war. By the time Jesus was born, it had disappeared entirely.
Tomorrow we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Hearing Maccabees today reminds us that much of what seems powerful and immutable in our own time will one day pass away. As believers in a God who has “cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52), we know the kingdom of Christ is the only one that will truly last.