At Vespers last night we heard not one but many different names mentioned. In one of the hymns, we sang: “…let us extol with hymns the assembly of the forefathers, Adam the first father, Enoch, Noah, and Melchizedek, Abraham, Joshua, and Samuel; and with them Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and the twelve Prophets, with Elijah and Elisha…” (Glory, Aposticha).
Although the weeks of the Christmas Fast are unlike those of Great Lent, where every Sunday has it’s own particular commemoration (e.g. Sunday of Orthodoxy, St. Gregory Palamas, the Holy Cross, etc.) these two Sundays before Christmas are different since they, too, have their own commemoration, one that is in direct connection with the coming celebration of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so this Sunday is called the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, when we commemorate the earthly ancestors of our Lord beginning with “the first father” Adam and going down the line.
Among those many names mentioned at the evening service there was one reference made that seemed to outnumber the rest. This is the reference made to the Prophet Daniel and the three holy youths. This is because their feast falls either on this day or, in most cases, near it, but besides this more practical explanation I think there is a spiritual connection as well.
We read about their story in the Old Testament book of Daniel. There we find out how the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and took back with him to Babylon a group of skilled Isrealites. Among them was Daniel; and it is here, in the very beginning of the book, that we are given a moving example of obedience towards God, an example for us to ponder especially during these days of fasting. Namely, Daniel was willing to work hard for king Nebuchadnezzar, however he also wanted to remain faithful to God and didn’t want to do anything which would jeopardize his obedience to God’s holy laws. When he realized that he would have to eat the same food and drink the same wine as the king, which included foods forbidden by his faith, he asked the chief official if he could be given a plainer diet. The official was afraid that such a diet would only make him weaker and the king, seeing that he was not eating the same food, would execute the official. But Daniel was insistent and said, “Feed me and my three friends only vegetables and water for ten days and see if we start to weaken or not.” The guard agreed and changed their diet. At the end of the ten days not only did they not weaken in strength but Daniel and his three friends, amazingly, looked fitter and healthier than the other Isrealites who had eaten the royal food.
This example from the pages of the Bible is coupled with so many more – even from modern science – that point to the health benefits of fasting. In fact, what’s interesting to note is that the only negative results I was able to find, from physicians about fasting are those that come from people who try to use the fast as a time to lose weight. Only under those circumstances, stripped of it’s spiritual context, does fasting prove to be unhealthy and even harmful.
But it is in the third chapter of this book of Daniel that we read about these three youths. King Nebuchadnezzar built a large statue made of gold and all of his subjects were required to worship it. He found out that not everyone was following his command. More specifically, it is the names of these three youths (who were probably despised out of envy as they held influential post’s in the king’s government) that were given to the king: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Furious, the king gave them one more chance to worship the statue; when they refused he ordered that they be bound and thrown into the fiery furnace. So furious was that he, that he ordered the furnace to be made seven times hotter. It was so hot that the guards who threw the three youths in died immediately.
Then a miracle occurred. Not only did the youths not burn to death but the king had to ask one of the guards, just to make sure: “Didn’t we only cast three youths in the fire?” When the guards answered, “Indeed, it was only three,” the king responded: “Behold, I see four men untied and walking in the midst of the fire…” (Dan. 3:24-25). Not only does the king claim to see an extra person in the flames, but he himself says, “and the vision of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
The connection between this event and the Nativity of Christ we, again, find in the hymns we sang last night, where we sang: ‘Thy young men, O Christ, when they were in the furnace which was to them like dew, mysteriously figure thy birth from the Virgin, which has illumined us without burning us.’ (At Lord I cry).
This great and joyous feast we are slowly approaching, the Nativity of Christ, is certainly a major event. What comes to mind during that cold Christmas Eve service is the young baby Jesus born in the cave, warmed by the shepherds and the animals, greeted by the wise men from the East, that image we and the entire world is familiar with. But there is so much more in that event, so much more in that cave. For, our Lord was born in Bethlehem, the name of that town meaning bread, for He it is who came in order to become the bread of life. The holy youths have always been a Nativity image in the Church since the youths ability to withstand the fire foreshadowed the Holy Virgin’s ability to contain the fire of the Godhead in her pure womb. Not only this, but the three youths also manifest what takes place in us when we make our communion in faith. For in this fiery furnace in which is the “fourth person”, the Son of God, we recognize the Holy Chalice. As some were slain by the flames of the fire when they approached to throw the youths in, so too are are those who approach the Chalice without fear of God, faith and love.(1)
And just as Christ Himself was united to the youths in the flames and saved them, so is He present with us in the furnace of that holy Chalice, where He is not only truly uniting Himself with us – but it is there that He truly saves us. Amen.
1. Fr. Josiah Trenham, The Three Holy Youths