The Rev. Dave Delaney, Assistant to the Bishop
When we reach this point in the Easter Season every year ("Shepherd Sunday" - the fourth Sunday of Easter every year - always acts as a reminder) I like to stop and take note of what has stuck with me from Easter weekend. Is there a particular hymn or lesson or sermon or other experience that has persisted in my memory in the last month or keeps popping up in my thoughts?
This year what has stuck with me is the transition song that is sung at the Easter Vigil service, variously called "All You Works of the Lord" (the Latin title is benedicite omnia opera ) or "The Song of the Three Young Men." It is drawn from a little book called "The Prayer of Azariah," which in turn is found in a collection of writings called (by Protestants) "The Apocrypha." Some of the Apocryphal writings have been part of the Roman Catholic Bible since at least the early middle ages and traditionally considered useful but not authoritative for doctrine by Lutherans. A quick Google search will turn up not only a lot of information that explains the Apocrypha, but also the text of "The Prayer of Azariah" in case your Bible does not already include it. Briefly, this four-page writing was composed as an insert for the book of Daniel, right at the point in chapter three when Shadrach, Meschah, and Abednego are tossed by Nebuchadnezzar into the fiery furnace. What we sing is their reaction to that experience while they are actually in the furnace.
I believe that there are two intersecting reasons why this bit of liturgical song has stayed with me this year. One is that I have always been struck by how contrary the content of the song is to what we would expect. There is no defiance, no call to arms, no threat of judgment to the king, not even a cry of despair or any call for rescue or help. We think that this song may have been written at a time when the nation of Ancient Israel was experiencing yet another threat to its existence, having been repeatedly tossed back and forth between Egypt and whichever government was in power in Mesapotamia, with both political and religious persecution at every step. It is typical for religious communities who are being attacked - presuming they have not already chosen either to assimilate or surrender - to begin drawing strict lines between themselves and all others, that is, to define even more precisely who is in and who is not, in an attempt to strengthen "tribal" identity and loyalty and perhaps prolong the life of the community. That move tends to include restricting easy addition of new community members and guarding with forceful care the community's identifying symbols and practices. Yet when we read the song of these Three Young Men we see the opposite. They leave almost no stone unturned in inviting anyone and everyone to join them in praise to the God who creates and sustains all things. At the very time when we would expect them to be circling their wagons and shutting others out, they gather all creation and all people in to join in a song of celebration. It is an astonishing, counterintuitive, and counter-cultural manifesto for the way God's people should be.
My perception - that's all it is, really - that our world this winter and spring has exhibited more than the usual amount of violence, division and exclusion, retrenchment of ideological postures, and threats of
fiery furnaces is the second reason why the Song of the Three Young Men has stuck with me. Between Sandy Hook and North Korea, I find that I have to sing something in protest, something that will not only point me in another direction but also save me from despair and hopelessness. Something accusatory and militant would only make me and all things worse. But an invitation to potential mutual enemies to join in a song that is already in progress, one that directs everyone's attention heavenward, would surely have a different effect, one that could bring both peace and hope. May God preserve us from all fiery furnaces, but if by chance we do find ourselves tossed into one, can we all sing loudly with our lips and our lives?
The Easter Vigil prayer that follows the reading of Daniel 3:1-29:
Almighty and eternal God, the only hope of the world, by the proclamation of your prophets you declare to us the word of salvation. By the grace of your Spirit increase the devotion of all the baptized, that, strengthened by your presence, we may withstand hardship and sorrow and be united with your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Prayer of Azariah 35 - "Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord; praise him and magnify him forever!"