Meditation on Book of Daniel 3:26-41

Reflects on Canticle of Azariah in the Furnace

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 14, 2003 (
Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave at today’s Wednesday Audience, dedicated to the Book of Daniel.

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1. The Canticle which was just proclaimed belongs to the Greek text of the Book of Daniel and is presented as a supplication raised to the Lord with ardor and sincerity. It is the voice of Israel which is experiencing the harsh trial of exile and of diaspora among peoples. The one who intones the Canticle is, in fact, a Hebrew, Azariah, in the context of the Babylonian horizon, at the time of Israel’s exile, after the destruction of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar.

Azariah, with two other Hebrew faithful, is «in the midst of the furnace» (see Daniel 3:25), as a martyr ready to face death so as not to betray his conscience and his faith. He was condemned to death for refusing to adore the imperial statue.

2. In this Canticle, the persecution is considered as a just punishment with which God purifies the sinful people: «for in truth and justice thou hast brought all this upon us because of our sins» (see verse 5). Thus we are before a penitential prayer, which does not end in discouragement or fear, but in hope.

Certainly, the point of departure is bitter, the desolation is acute, the trial is harsh, the divine judgment on the sin of the people is severe: «And at this time there is no prince, or prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, no place to make an offering before thee or to find mercy» (see verse 15). The temple of Sion has been destroyed, and the Lord seems no longer to dwell in the midst of his people.

3. In the present tragic situation, hope seeks its roots in the past, namely, in the promises made to the fathers. It harks back, therefore, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see verse 12), to whom God had assured blessings and fruitfulness, earth and greatness, life and peace. God is faithful and will not retract his promises. Although justice demands that Israel be punished for its faults, the certainty remains that the last word will be that of mercy and forgiveness. The prophet Ezekiel had already referred to these words of the Lord: «Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, and not rather that he would turn from his way and live? … For I have no pleasure in the death of any one» (see Ezekiel 18:23-32). Certainly, now is the time of humiliation: «For we have become fewer than any nation, and are brought low this day in all the world because of our sins» (see Daniel 3:37). And yet the expectation is not that of death, but of a new life, after the purification.

4. The man of prayer approaches the Lord, offering him the most precious and acceptable gift: a «contrite heart» and a «humble spirit» (see verse 16; see Psalm 50[51]:19). It is, precisely, the center of existence, the «I» renewed by trial that is offered to God, so that he will receive it as a sign of conversion and consecration to the good.

With this interior disposition, fear ceases, confusion and shame are overcome (see Daniel 3:40), and the spirit opens to confidence in a better future, when the promises made to the fathers will be fulfilled.

The final phrase of Azariah’s supplication, as it is proposed by the liturgy, is of strong emotional impact and profound spiritual intensity: «And now with all our heart we follow thee, we fear thee and seek thy face» (see verse 18). It echoes another Psalm: «Of you my heart has said: ‘Seek his face’; your face, Lord, I seek» (see Psalm 26[27]:8).

Now the moment has arrived in which we abandon the perverse ways of evil, the crooked paths and the devious ways (see Proverbs 2:15). We begin to follow the Lord, moved by the desire to see his face. And his face is not angry, but full of love, as the merciful father was revealed in his meeting with the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32).

5. We conclude our reflection on the Canticle of Azariah with the prayer written by St. Maximus the Confessor in his Ascetic Discourse (see verses 37-39), where he begins precisely with the text of the prophet Daniel. «In your name, Lord, do not abandon us forever, do not break your covenant and do not take away your mercy from us (see Daniel 3:34-35), in your pity, O our Father who art in heaven, in the compassion of your only-begotten Son and in the mercy of your Holy Spirit … Do not neglect our supplication, O Lord, and do not abandon us forever.

We do not put our trust in our works of justice, but in your mercy, through which you preserve our race … Do not detest our indignity, but have compassion for us according to your great mercy, and according to the fullness of your mercy cancel our sins, so that without condemnation we may approach the presence of your holy glory and be considered worthy of the protection of your only-begotten Son.»

St. Maximus concludes: Yes, O Lord omnipotent Master, hear our supplication, as we do not recognize any other besides you» (see Humanity and Divinity of Christ, Rome, 1979, pp. 51-52).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the Audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In the Canticle we have just heard from the Book of Daniel, Azariah raises a fervent prayer of supplication to God. Jerusalem has fallen, the Israelites are in exile, and Azariah himself faces death because of his refusal to betray his beliefs. Despite these overwhelming difficulties, Azariah does not lose faith and turns to the Lord with a contrite heart and a humble spirit.

We, too, are invited to approach God with a contrite heart and a humble spirit, never losing faith. Not only does this free us from fear, confusion, and shame, but it also fills us with the consuming desire to see the Lord s face, a face radiant with love and compassion for his people.

I am pleased to extend special greetings to the participants in the NATO Defense College and to the English-speaking visitors present at today s Audience, particularly those from England, Wales, Australia, Canada, and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of the Risen Savior.

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