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But back when I was becoming better acquainted with the Bible and the liturgy, my point of historical reference for the Canticle of Azarias was surely the Roman de la Rose, a long Old-French poem from the thirteenth century—that is, from the same century in which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)  
Tags: ,