16 November, Tuesday – Dying a Noble Death

Memorial for St. Gertrude (1256 – 1301/2)

Saint Gertrude was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1256, in Eisleben, Thuringia. As a girl, she was educated by the Benedictine nuns at Helfta and was particularly talented at literature and philosophy. Gertrude was confided to the care of Mechtilde, the younger sister of the Abbess Gertrude, and joined the monastic community in 1266. It is clear from her own writings that she received a thorough education in a range of subjects.

In 1281, at the age of 25, she experienced the first of a series of visions that continued throughout her life, and which changed the course of her life. Her priorities shifted away from secular knowledge and toward the study of scripture and theology. Gertrude devoted herself strongly to personal prayer and meditation, and began writing spiritual treatises for the benefit of her monastic sisters. Gertrude became one of the great mystics of the 13th century. Together with her friend and teacher Mechtilde, she practiced a spirituality called “nuptial mysticism,” that is, she came to see herself as the Bride of Christ.

Gertrude died at Helfta, near Eisleben, Saxony, around 1302. Her feast day is celebrated on November 16, but the exact date of her death is unknown. Her spiritual writings had great influence in later centuries and indirectly contributed to the establishment of the feast of the Sacred Heart.

  • Patron Saint Index

2 Mc 6:18-31
Lk 19:1-10

Therefore if I am man enough to quit this life here and now I shall prove myself worthy of my old age, and I have left the young a noble example of how to make a good death, eagerly and generously, for the venerable and holy laws.

The readings from 2 Maccabees today details one of numerous accounts of the struggles of the Jews under the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled the land sometime in 170 B.C. Eleazar’s martyrdom illustrates the unwavering faith and obedience of the people during those trying times which empowered them to make extreme sacrifices and overcome fear, even in the face of death. However, I believe that this faith wasn’t nurtured overnight nor due to his valour. In the earlier books of the Old Testament, we learnt that Eleazar was one of the four sons born to Aaron, Moses’s brother. He followed his father’s and brothers’ footsteps, and was consecrated as a priest in service to the Lord. Besides having lived through the period of the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness, he also witnessed firsthand how God destroyed his brothers, Nadab and Abihu, who dishonoured the Lord’s commands. We were told in Leviticus that God also gave him specific instructions on the consumption of alcohol and rules pertaining to food offerings. In the book of Numbers, Eleazar was given the grisly job of sifting through the ashes of Korah and his followers after God sent fire to consume them. He was tasked to gather the censers the men had used to burn the incense. He hads definitely gone through a lot during his lifetime, and knew very well how God dealt with unfaithful men during those days.

Whether his character was shaped by his faith (or fear of the Lord), or his obedience to these duties as a high priest, the fact remains that he made a conscious decision not to make the pretence of appearing to consume unlawful meat; knowing very well that his actions had ramifications far beyond his own life. He did not want to scandalize the Jewish nation and lead astray the young who looked up to him. There is an abundance of martyrs throughout Christian history; Eleazar being just one of them. Many of them chose the path of martyrdom when they were forced to renounce or defile their faith. In short, they were cornered to choose between God or their lives. However, there were some extraordinary characters in history who went beyond that, offering their lives as a sacrifice so that others may live. One great example is prisoner 16670 in Auschwitz during World War II, otherwise known as Maximilian Kolbe. Fr. Kolbe had volunteered to be one of the men elected to be starved to death in place of another prisoner, even though he wasn’t selected by the Nazis originally. His sacrifice was extremely admirable — a conscious decision to give up his life for another without external pressure or coercion.   

Even in the recent popular Netflix series, Squid Game, the dark and compelling struggles of survival of the ‘players’ also encapsulated certain extraordinary human feats and sacrifices. Beyond the hype of the series and the malevolence of humanity, there are life lessons that can be gleaned from it. In particular, player 240 who sacrificed her life in order for her opponent, player 067 to proceed to the next stage of the game. In a similar fashion to Fr. Kolbe, she understood that player 067, who is a North Korean defector, still had siblings and parents who were longing for their daughter’s return, whereas she had little to pine for even if she survived. In a dramatic act of sacrifice, she purposely lost the game (and her life) so that others would have a shot at survival.

All the above acts of resistance to evil are a consequence of love, rather than the contrary. No matter how detached we are from society, none of us live in a vacuum. What we do affects other people. Moreover, if we are lacking in love, we can offer little resistance to hate. In our world twisted with racism and hatred, the life and death of these martyrs provide an unmistakable answer to those who wish to resist evil forces and influences. Although we may never be called to suffer as these people did; nevertheless, let’s all seek to imitate the faithfulness, conviction, and courage of these characters. We, too, as we remain faithful to the Lord’s commandments and his word to us, can also impact our families, and even the whole world.

(Today’s OXYGEN by Dylan Tan)

Prayer:  Heavenly Father, help us to be an instrument of your love and give us the will and strength to perservere in the face of adversity, and be always faithful to you and your commandments. May you shower your mercy and love upon us in the midst of our struggles and give us the peace that transcends all understanding. Amen.     

Thanksgiving: Thank you Father, for always loving and being there for us. Please send your Holy Spirit to guide us in our journey and draw us closer to Christ.

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