An Advent Carol

But the angel of the Lord went down with Azarias and his companions into the furnace: and he drove the flame of the fire out of the furnace, And made the midst of the furnace like the blowing of a wind bringing dew, and the fire touched them not at all, nor troubled them, nor did them any harm.  (Dn. iii. 49-50)

From the flame, for the venerable children, Thou hast brought forth dew, and the sacrifice and water of the just one Thou hast burned: Thou doest all, O Christ, as Thou willest; we extol Thee in all ages.  (Irmos 8, Canon of the Great Pannychida)

From the time I began to know a little something more about the Bible, and about its extensive quotation in the liturgy, both prophetic (scriptural) and liturgical statements concerning the Three Holy Youths—Ananias, Azarias, and Misael—who were committed to the flames and miraculously spared for having refused to worship the idol set up by the Babylonian king Nabuchodonosor, stirred within me a not-quite-forgotten, almost-reptilian historical memory.  Perhaps that’s not too surprising.  To be clear, I do not say that this is what those statements meant, or mean.  I say rather that this is what my life meant, in light of those statements: for the youths’ “faces appeared fairer and fatter than all the children that ate of the king’s meat” (Dn. i. 15), though Azarias and his companions had themselves only pulse to eat; and the king’s servants “ceased not to heat the furnace with brimstone, and tow, and pitch, and dry sticks, And the flame mounted up above the furnace nine and forty cubits” (iii. 46-47).  On the one hand I could easily regard the furnace as a metaphor for my own alien and invasive and inextinguishable desire, as I then felt it to be, for beautiful boys; on the other hand, as the actual historical punishment which used to be meted out to such as myself.  People have done and sometimes still do this sort of thing.  One thinks of the attack in the Bronx just this past October, when the “Latin King Goonies” assaulted three young men, successively sodomizing them with plungers or baseball bats and burning their nipples and penises with cigarettes.  Or one thinks of the current news reports from Africa, where official persecution of homosexuals, and vigilante “justice” against them, seem to be increasing.

But back when I was becoming better acquainted with the Bible and the liturgy, my point of historical reference for the Canticle of Azarias was surely the Roman de la Rose, a long Old-French poem from the thirteenth century—that is, from the same century in which (Western) European secular laws started persecuting sexual minorities much more aggressively. [1]  It contains numerous not-so-veiled threats to burn Fair Welcome, who has been wounded in the side by the God of Love and is enamored of his Rose:

Qui le devroit tout vif larder,

Ne s’en porroit il pas garder

“Even if one had to burn him all alive,

He could not prevent himself from it” [i.e., from obeying the God of Love.]  (ll. 3267-68)

With such intimations of fair faces and the ferocious violence done to them did I hear, and still do hear, the Canticle of Azarias, chanted for the first time in the furnace of Babylon and repeated at every Matins service of the Orthodox churches, and in a great many of their hymns: “All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,” (Dn. iii. 57) etc

This canticle, known to the West as the Benedicite, is moreover the archetypical Advent carol.

N.K. Roerich, "The Fiery Furnace": Keeping Christmas in Russia, 1907

That may be an unexpected assertion, but the church calendar makes the point.  (So does Fr. Stephen Freeman, in “The Fiery Furnace of Christmas.”)  From the beginning of Orthodox Advent on November 15th, a string of commemorations calls attention to the Old Testament’s manifold prophetic prefigurations of God’s coming in the flesh.  Two Marian feasts—her Presentation on November 21st, and her Conception on December 8th or 9th—underscore the decisive importance to the Incarnation of preceding Jewish history.  And down they go to Bethlehem, one after another, the ancient Hebrew saints:

November 19th: Holy Prophet Abdias 

December 1st: Holy Prophet Nahum

December 2nd: Holy Prophet Habacuc

December 3rd: Holy Prophet Sophonias

December 16th: Holy Prophet Aggeus

culminating in

December 17th: Holy Prophet Daniel and the Three Holy Youths, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael

So it is should not startle us to hear the Canticle of Azarias in particular connection with the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.  To each of the canticle’s benedictions, whenever we hear them—”All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord”; “O ye angels of the Lord, bless the Lord”; “O ye heavens”; “O ye waters”; “O ye sun and moon”—to each of these we may reply mentally with the formula of the prophet Isaias which is quoted again and again in the order for the Great Compline of the Nativity: jako s nami Boh, “for God is with us.”  With us, in earthly courts from that of the Latin King Goonies to that of King Louis IX of France.  With us, in the furnace of Babylon.  With us, in fair faces. 

Two thoughts fill the mind during the Christmas season: the thought of the innocence of children—of the infant Savior, of the immaculate virgin Mother of God, of the Three Holy Youths, and perhaps of our own childhood, all gauzily wrapped in the swaddling clothes of red cloth, pine, and incense, the whole medieval and childlike dream-world of Old-Testament prophecy; and the twin thought of subsequent experience—of the Passion, the Seven Sorrows, the furnace of Babylon, our own sins.  So we imitate the one, so we learn from the other.

Bless the Lord, for God is with us.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Jo Ann H. Moran-Cruz, The Roman de la Rose and Thirteenth-Century Prohibitions of Homosexuality,” paper given at “Cultural Frictions,” Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 27-28 October 1995.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 9:37 pm  Comments (4)  
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  1. In the very depths of despair there is always the light of hope. Again, in this liturgical season we are reminded of nature’s own seasons. The birth of Christ is a preable to the fullfulment of the covenant that comes in Easter. From Winter comes Spring, from death comes Life, eternal. Ultimately we are given the greatest hope in Christmas by remembering that in so few months we shall celebrate the Resurrection. So for now we shall celebrate light, love and the promise to be fulfilled.

    May Peace be with you.

  2. @ithilien: Thanks for this. Fr. Schmemann coined the phrase “the winter Pascha” to describe Christmas in anticipation of Easter. Fr. Hopko’s summary thoughts on the phrase, and on Fr. Schmemann’s passing during Advent 1983, here.

    pax tecum : mir s toboj,

  3. I too feel right now as if i were in a fiery furnace, as do many roman priests. For a Christmas present this year we received the words of the Pope, who considers homoseuxally-oriented priests to be intruders, unfit to have been ordained, a terrible problem for the Church. For in his new conception of priesthood, the most important – even essential – element is celibacy, which is, according to him, the giving up of the desire for a woman and union with her in marriage, which demands that the candidate for the priesthood be heterosexually oriented. For otherwise, the candidate would not be giving up anything at all, and his priesthood would be a a farce. The Pope demands that Bishops and Seminary Rectors see to it that absolutely no homoseuxally-inclined man be ordained. ”For celibacy must not become a refuge for men who do not want to marry anway.” And thus, those who are already ordained, are evil intruders, personae non gratae, a serious problem for the Church. If it’s hard to be gay and catholic, it is now impossible to be gay and a priest, when the Highest Authority within the Church declares such priests to be unfit for that office merely on account of their sexual orientation. Logically, the faithful will be put into the unenviable moral situation of figuring out which priests are gay, and then rejecting their services.

    That i might escape the fiery furnace completely. In the meantime i have already reduced my involvement to a minimum, for i wish to be as little present as possible where i am not wanted.

    On the other hand, in Finland, the Orthodox CHurch there accepts gay couples and seems to be willing to discuss gay priests with partners. And the Lutheran Churcn of Bavaria has now officially sanctioned gay partnered pastors.

    What a difference between developmensts in other Churches from my own Roman Church, once known for its lenience towards homosexuality, now notorious for its ever-increasing intolerance towards and repression of homosexually inclined persons both within and outside the Church.
    God bless your insights, and i wish you courage in your own furnace, and a blessed end of Advent.

  4. @Albertus: Thank you for your thoughts, Father. I have not very often encountered in convesation the accusation which you mention–namely, that gays who become clergy “do not give anything up,” and so cannot be considered as making a personal sacrifice in the same way that straights do who become (celibate) clergy–but I have encountered it on occasion. When I first heard it (when I was still closeted and “conservative” in the conventional sense), it angered me as few things do; hearing the “ick factor” voiced by family and friends has really been for me the only comparable source of raw anger in this department. The *lack* of moral common sense required to make such a judgment is simply stunning. Queer people who have chosen, out of a laudable obedience to ecclesiastical authority, to give up any explicit manifestation of their sexuality, from the very first moment they become aware of such sexuality, exercise a self-discipline which, in my humble if biased opinion, many straight Christians do not even begin to imagine. For anyone to say then (but especially the hierarchy) that such discipline *still* does not avail, and that the sacrifice of a gay cleric is “less than” that of a straight cleric, is unedifying to the point of scandal. To do so would be to invite straight and gay Christians to spend their time looking at each other, comparing themselves to each other, morbidly, whither can only lie despair and spiritual shipwreck for those concerned.

    A blessed Advent indeed. S nami Boh,


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