There is a story from the Old Testament that has captured my imagination…a story of courage and wonder, of fear and grace. But as an artist, I had to let it develop. Eventually I asked three boys who have been my catechism students to pose for me, as well as my son, Peter. I have a painting to share about the Fierce and Fiery Furnace of This Life on Earth.
This story is about fire…a fire which will either destroy or purify. The angry blaze of this story was first kindled by a prideful pagan king. He wants control…not just physical and monetary control. But mental and spiritual control over his subjects as well. He uses fear, as tyrants have done throughout history, to induce submission. And when three heroic young men stand strong in virtue and faith, he makes good on his threat of punishment.
The three young men were living in a pagan world, yet they, along with their leader Daniel, stayed strong in the faith of the Jews. It was around 600 BC when the southern kingdom of Judah, which fell away from God, was conquered by the Babylonians. The Jewish leaders and intellectuals were taken captive. In Babylon, they were persecuted for their faith. This time of hardship forced the Chosen People to decide…lukewarm, sliding into sin was no longer an option. They either sold their souls to the devil or spoke out for truth.
We live in times such as these. The story of Daniel Chapter 3 is one to revisit. In Babylon, multiple gods were given token acknowledgement and virtuous living would just get in the way. In the United States, recognition of various religious groups is touted, but Christianity is mocked. And the importance of family and virtue is sliding away.
For some reason, the young men of our story were separated from their leader, Daniel, on this occasion. They weren’t the ones who normally spoke out. Yet, here they were—faced with a defining moment. King Nebuchadnezzar had created a statue to one of the pagan gods. When the horns sounded, all the people of the land were to bow to this statue. “Bow down or die,” he had proclaimed. The young Jews could either tap into an inner resource of courage (which can only be nurtured by regular prayer), or they could save their skins.
The young men didn’t bow. Probably, they hoped that no one would notice. They acted honorably in a gesture which said, “There is only one God who deserves to be worshipped.” But they were noticed by government officials and they now had to defend themselves with words. They spoke for truth, saying “No” to the king’s command. They resisted the father of lies.
These young ones knew that God can and does work miracles in the world. Yet, even if their lives were not spared, they were going to stand strong. They said, “We will offer ourselves up for others as a sacrifice, in atonement for sins.” Thus they made themselves Christ-like …conformed to the will of God. They faced the fire with hope in an eternal reward.
Fire is a symbol of both cleansing redemption and fierce punishment. It is a source of light and heat. It’s the burning bush. It’s the column leading the people on the journey through the desert. It symbolizes the acceptance of a sacrifice that goes to heaven. The tabernacle flame says that “God is here.” Fire purifies, allowing the dross to be removed and the metal to be shaped. In these ways, fire is like God Himself. Yet fire also cause painful burns; it disfigures and destroys. We envision it as the torture of hell and the just destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The young ones did not know which version of fire they faced. They knew that the Jewish people had turned away from God. They knew they had sinned as well. Yet, they trusted in God’s merciful love and surrendered to Him so that they could be purified and recreated.
In the fire they prayed and a mysterious firgure appeared. The flames were surely scorching. Perhaps they wondered if this angel was there to escort them to heaven. They prayed in new ways…now praising God whose actions far surpass our limited understanding. They praised God whose love and mercy is without end.
And the young men walked out of that fire unharmed! The Bible doesn’t mention them again. But we can assume that they were now “on fire” with love for our God who tests and purifies and shapes us—when we give ourselves over to Him.
St. Luke (Chapter 12) records Jesus saying that we have no reason to fear those who can kill the body, but every reason to fear those who would lead us to deny God. Jesus says, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:59). This present time is leading people to deny God and deny His greatest gifts—of life and family.
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” Jesus says in Luke 12:49. His fire will refine, clarify and purify…separating those who will defend morality even in the face of persecution, from those who will deny God. The fire Jesus talks about is the Holy Spirit who comes as tongues of flame, igniting courage, warming hearts, and lighting the way HOME.
In my painting, one of the young men rejects the flames of lies that requires submission to paganism. Another offers himself up in surrender as a sacrifice. The third young man prayers diligently. As a result of their courage and perseverance in truth, the angel comes to spread loving arms of protection around them. And the fire is then revealed…it warms their hearts! In fact it burns with desire. For to see God, is to see Perfection, Love and Beauty Itself.
We are called to surrender ourselves to be consumed in His purifying fire…not to be destroyed, but to walk out into the world re-made.
Melt our stony hearts O Lord. Re-cast our lives. Burn away our fears, that we might serve You faithfully during this time on earth. Ignite in us a heart on fire for You, Lord Jesus, and for Your truth, Your beauty, Your good. Enkindle in us the same kind of courage, strength and love that we see in Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as they enter the fiery furnace.
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