This past summer, while I was on vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Yeretsgin Alice and I happened in to a small art gallery at one of the main shopping areas in that resort town.
As I poked around and looked at the different paintings, many of which were religious themed, one particular painting caught my eye.
It was of a firefighter sitting in a church lost in prayer, gazing devoutly at a stained glass icon above the altar. The icon to which his gaze was directed was a peculiar one – something that we are not used to seeing so prominently in the church, but a recognizable one nonetheless. It was of the three Hebrew youths, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were employed in the court of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (these were actually their assumed Babylonian names, as their true Hebrew names were Ananias, Azaria and Misael). This took place during the “Exilic period,” which refers to the time after the Babylonians had invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and taken the Jews captive in Babylon.
The story of these men is found in the third chapter of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament (the extended Armenian version of the text includes two lengthy praise songs and some additional parts of the narrative). Nebuchadnezzar was a grandiose king to say the least. He had a massive graven image (idol) of himself, made out of precious metals, erected in his court and decreed that every time his subjects heard his court musicians playing a certain music they must stop everything and immediately bow down before the statue in worship. Of course, being faithful believers in the one true God, these three young men very respectfully but decisively refused to do so.
Well, the punishment for refusal was execution by being thrown into a burning, fiery furnace, stoked with pitch, naphtha and other plant life that would make it burn especially hot. When Nebuchadnezzar heard of these three young men’s defiance, he ordered them to be brought before him for questioning. When they refused to swerve from their conviction, asserting that the only God they worship is able to save them from the furnace, he made the decision to have them thrown in right then and there.
Of course, the outcome is not what we would come to expect (or is it?). Not only does the fire not kill them, but it doesn’t even harm them – not one hair on their head was singed and not even the smell of smoke was on their clothes, when Nebuchadnezzar finally in absolute astonishment called them to come out of the furnace.
It was a passage all too familiar to me. Every Christmas and Easter Eve growing up, I would prepare to chant along with my companions the famous “Voch inch é bido” passage, which refers to the first line of the three young men’s response as it is written in Armenian. I knew the story and the chant very well, even more so now as a parish priest as I read and re-read it twice a year in preparation for the vigil reading service (Jrakalooyts) of these two major feast days.
What happened to the three young men while they were in the furnace? It must have been a spectacular sight; spectacular enough to make a fascinated Nebuchadnezzar order that they be brought out at once. The scripture tells us that while they were in there, “the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, and made the inside of the furnace as though a moist wind were whistling through it.” (Aza. 26-27) Hence, the above mentioned fact that they came out unscathed and unharmed by the fire!
In the Old Testament there are many recorded episodes where God himself sends his angel (“messenger”) to intervene in human history in a miraculous way. This is indeed one of those episodes.
In later Theological interpretation of the fathers of the early Church, this shadowy “fourth man in the fire” (yes, this is from where we get the modern expression) is seen to be the Christ figure – God the Son – in a pre-figuration of his incarnation and descent to earth. God sent his messenger-angel, Christ, to save mankind from the flaming furnace of his sin.
Going back to that summer day in South Carolina, this is why the firefighter in the painting was praying in front of this particular icon. It took me a moment to realize the significance, but when I did, I was particularly moved. Here was a man whose job it was to jump into fires and save people from the burning flames. God only knows if, in this artist’s interpretation, he had maybe just come from performing this very act, possibly bereaved at having lost some of the victims or humbled at having been able to save some – or possibly both. Here he is in the House of God, finding comfort in the knowledge that the Lord God and creator of the entire universe, upon seeing his servants engulfed in the flames of the fire, rushed down in a very similar manner to help these helpless men and to liberate them from certain doom. It was a touching moment that brought tears to my eyes, as I thought of both the comfort that a heroic firefighter could possibly receive from this image, and also of the reassurance we all could receive that Jesus is with his servants when we are most in need.
More recently, I was looking through Old Testament biblical passages that would be appropriate to read at our American Christmas Eve service a few weeks ago. At first, I was drawn to this passage because of the obvious imagery that it conjures – God sent his only Son to earth to save his servants from peril. After all, wasn’t this the quintessential message of the Nativity and Theophany (Christ’s birth and revelation)? I hesitated, wondering back and forth if it would be too long, not readily understood, etc. I also began to contemplate in a deeper way why our Church Fathers in their wisdom selected this reading for Christmas Eve? What was its true significance? What is its relevance to our situation?
Then it hit me; something that after so much study of this passage, after so many years having overlooked, stood out at me in a magnificent way.
The scripture records that before being thrown into the furnace, these three young men were tied up securely. “But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire” (Dan. 3:23) (notwithstanding the fact that the fire had been stoked to such an high temperature that the body guards that brought the men to be thrown in it were themselves killed). But when King Nebuchadnezzar saw inside the furnace, he asked his advisors, “Was it not three men we threw bound into the fire?” (Dan. 3:24) Then he exclaimed, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” (Dan. 3:25)
You see, not only were they saved from the fire in an existential sense, they were also liberated from captivity while they were still in the flames! They entered into the furnace bound, but when they encountered Christ they were unbound. This powerful element of the story had escaped me until now. I began at once to think about the “double” helplessness of not only being thrown into a fiery furnace, but also to have my hands and feet bound as well.
I began to contemplate in a real way how I would have handled being in that situation. I thought about the human survival instinct and how I would probably have at least held on to the thought (no matter how wishful) that once I got into the furnace, I could rely on some of my own faculties – a little bit of footwork, some artful dodging and half a miracle might buy a little time and maybe even a chance to find some crafty way out!
But no… thrown into a flaming furnace and completely unable to move due to being tied up means absolutely no hope in surviving on one’s own. The only thing I or anyone could do in that situation would be to turn my life, my trust, my well-being and my salvation over to God, knowing only he could set me free. Total admission of powerlessness and complete surrender would be the only “way out.” I also began to think about all of the other Christian martyrs throughout the history of the Faith, St. Vartan, St. George, St. Sarkis, St. Hripsime, the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide and all those brave men and women who came up against the powerlessness of their final hour and chose with conviction and certitude to hand their lives over to the God that they knew in their hearts had the power to protect and liberate them from the proverbial flames.
Naturally, as I thought about the literal implications of this precarious scenario (however improbable for me), my mind and heart then wandered over to the much more familiar figurative (read: spiritual) implications of the whole matter.
That furnace is, for us today, the world; the flames, its dangerous perils and the grievous sins of mankind. Our own sins and the difficulties of our lives are also represented by the flames and the furnace. All of these things – from personality defects to damaged relationships to wholesale violence, murder, starvation and suffering – are utterly out of our control. Like the flames of the furnace, we are both powerless to extinguish them and helpless to escape them.
This is why these three young men, Ananias, Azaria and Mesael, and the holy martyrs who followed them in history, placed their trust in a God who is powerful to both fend off the flames (remember the moist wind?), liberate them from their bonds and save them from the fire.
This passage reminds us yearly of the promise of Christmas: namely, that God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to do exactly these things for you and me and for the entire world.
In the liturgical rite of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the dual praise songs of these three men are chanted daily during the Morning Office (liturgical prayer hour), followed by a hymn (sharagan) composed on its themes. In the short exhortation (maghtank) that follows, the priest recites the following words, “Rain down, O Lord, the dew of your benevolent mercy upon our sinful persons. Extinguish the flame of the furnace of our sins and save us from the eternal fire.”
Even though I am not a firefighter like the man praying in the picture, I can now better grasp the grave and solemn circumstances under which he found himself, one who is called to save, bowing before the Savior of us all.
Sometimes it seems that our lives are engulfed in flames. Sometimes it feels like the entire world is on fire around us. Praise be to the Almighty Father that he is powerful to save us from it all. He sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to free us from our bonds, protect us from the peril of the flames and save us from the fiery furnace of the world.
Fr. Stephan Baljian,
Holy Nativity & Theophany 2018