Fiery FurnaceToday’s Mass opens with a passage from the prayer of Azariah in the burning furnace. The episode is placed during the Babylonian captivity, when the Chosen People had been exiled into a foreign land and deprived of the Temple and its sacrifices. Things were bleak, they were tragic. The prayer is one of great humility, acknowledging that the people only received what they deserved. Abandoning God and His law, living like pagans, no wonder they were chastened and deprived of the most sacred worship that had been committed to them as their most precious possession.
The words of this prayer are worth pondering, and they are worth quoting at some length. They ring true in our age as well, as we look out over the devastated civil and religious landscape of our world:
“Thou art just, O Lord, in all that thou hast done to us, and all thy works are true, and thy ways right, and all thy judgments true. For thou hast executed true judgments in all the things that thou hast brought upon us, and upon Jerusalem, the holy city of our fathers: for according to truth and judgment, thou hast brought all these things upon us for our sins. For we have sinned, and committed iniquity, departing from thee: and we have trespassed in all things: and we have not hearkened to thy commandments, nor have we observed nor done as thou hadst commanded us, that it might go well with us. Wherefore, all that thou hast brought upon us, and everything that thou hast done to us, thou hast done in true judgment: and thou hast delivered us into the hands of our enemies that are unjust, and most wicked, and prevaricators, and to a king unjust, and most wicked beyond all that are upon the earth. And now we cannot open our mouths: we are become a shame, and a reproach to thy servants, and to them that worship thee. Deliver us not up forever, we beseech thee, for thy name’s sake, and abolish not thy covenant. And take not away thy mercy from us, for the sake of Abraham, thy beloved, and Isaac, thy servant, and Israel, thy holy one: To whom thou hast spoken, promising that thou wouldst multiply their seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand that is on the sea shore. For we, O Lord, are diminished more than any nation, and are brought low in all the earth this day for our sins. Neither is there at this time prince, or leader, or prophet, or holocaust, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, or place of first fruits before thee, that we may find thy mercy: nevertheless, in a contrite heart and humble spirit let us be accepted. As in holocausts of rams, and bullocks, and as in thousands of fat lambs: so let our sacrifice be made in thy sight this day, that it may please thee: for there is no confusion to them that trust in thee. And now we follow thee with all our heart, and we fear thee, and seek thy face. Put us not to confusion, but deal with us according to thy meekness, and according to the multitude of thy mercies. And deliver us, according to thy wonderful works, and give glory to thy name, O Lord: and let all them be confounded that shew evils to thy servants, let them be confounded in all thy might, and let their strength be broken: and let them know that thou art the Lord, the only God, and glorious over all the world” (Dan 3:27-45).
The words of this prayer, each of us can apply them to himself. We have all, through our sins, turned our back on God and broken faith with Him. Because of it, we have found ourselves desolate, damaged, hopeless, distraught. But God does not refuse a contrite and humble heart. He is always ready to welcome the repentant soul that returns to Him.
But the prayer is also applicable to the Church. As a community of faith, the Church of the New Testament remains subject to the same temptations as the Synagogue. The enticement of pleasures and power, the thrills of false worship and vain and novel teachings are ever a temptation. As a Church, there are times when we fail the Lord. There are dark moments in history when all but a few let themselves be corrupted by the pagan mentality. And then we are handed over to leaders whose faith is weak, if it exists at all, whose teachings are like empty cisterns that cannot slake the thirst of the people. There are times when the most sacred aspects of our worship are denied, when access to the life-giving source of grace which is the sacraments is refused. In those times, and this is one of them, our only recourse is to humble, persevering prayer.
It can happen that we become discouraged. Individuals can lose hope in their own conversion; the Church herself can wonder if ever the tide of evil will be overturned. We must never doubt. We must believe. St John tells us in his first epistle: We have believed in the love God has for us (1 Jn 4:16). It is an act of faith. We must believe in His merciful love. True, we do not deserve consolation; true, we can appeal to no act of justice of our own, we have none. But we can appeal to His mercy and it is upon this that we must rely.
The centurion is today’s Gospel gives us an example. He was a pagan; he did not deserve Jesus’ attention, much lest a positive reply. But he believed. He had not seen, but he had believed. So shall it be with us if we can only believe in God’s love for us.
The days are evil, St Paul tells us in today’s epistle. To tell the truth, we didn’t really need the reminder. But those days, that time, can and must be redeemed. It must be bought back. And with what shall we pay for it? We have nothing of ourselves. All that we have of ourselves is apt to only increase our punishment. And so let us have recourse more and more to that merciful love which is offered to the humble of heart.
In a few moments the schola will chant this verse from Psalm 136: Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we remembered Sion. And so do we. We sit and we weep as we consider the glories of our heritage, and realise where we are now. We weep when we see the infants massacred, the elderly and the handicapped imperilled by evil laws, the faith made light of by those who are ordained to defend it, but our tears are not fruitless, for the Lord sees them, He collects them, and when there are enough of them to fill the vial, He will step in; He will one day send us a great pontiff to restore all things, one who will not be afraid to stand up against the wolves of the modern Babylons, who will expose himself to save his sheep.
It is a perilous thing to attack God’s people, as so many have experienced it throughout the centuries, for God does not abandon those who are His. He punishes them, yes; He puts them to the test, yes; He wants them to repent and come back to Him, yes; but He does not abandon, and He does not break His Covenant, and in the end He restores and gives victory.
Thus saith the Lord God the Holy One of Israel: If you return and be quiet, you shall be saved: in silence and in hope shall your strength be”(Is 30:15). Yes, it is good to wait with silence for the salvation of God (Lam 3:26).