Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Why Is This Fresco of the Fiery Furnace So Important That It Is In The Catechism?

And Why Should It Go In A Baptistry?

Have a look at this wall painting of the prophet Daniel’s companions in the fiery furnace. It is from the Roman Catacomb of Priscilla, one of the images that is included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But why?

Scripture tells us of the fate of Daniel’s three friends (Daniel 3: 49, Knox translation): “An angel of the Lord had gone down into the furnace with Azarias and his companions and drove the flames away from it, making a wind blow in the heart of the furnace, like the wind that brings the dew. So that these three were untouched, and the fire brought them no discomfort. Whereupon all of them, as with one mouth, began to give praise and glory and blessing to God, there in the furnace.” Afterwards, the King Nebuchadnezzar, who had thrown the youths into the fire, said he saw four figures, and the fourth was “as it had been a son of God.” (v. 92)

I recently examined this passage because the song that the three children sang in the furnace is sung on feast days at Lauds. I was looking at the background to this and considering why it is sung in the liturgy.

My understanding is that in the interpretation of the Church Fathers, the reference to the wind and the dew in the Scriptural account has been connected to the Creation story, in which the Spirit of God was over the water, and then to the baptism of Christ in which the Holy Spirit comes down and the sacrament of baptism is initiated. Baptism through water is spiritually the instrument of the death old self, so that we can be resurrected, also spiritually, in Confirmation or Chrismation by the action of the Holy Spirit.

There is a similar connection to the passages describing the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua, in which the water and wind are connected. Wind is the action of the Spirit, as is fire, such as the fire seen at Pentecost which the Church Fathers also connected to the burning bush seen by Moses.

These common themes are the reason why these scenes were traditionally depicted in baptisteries.

So who is the fourth figure?

He can be represented simply as “an angel of the Lord”, as in this contemporary icon by Nicola Saric.

Some Church Fathers identified the figure as a pre-incarnational appearance of Christ, as also in the three figures who appear in the story of Abraham’s hospitality (Genesis 18, 1-10), and in the voice in the Burning Bush speaking to Moses. (Exodus 3, 1-15) In this icon, this is made explicit by the “IC XC” and the cross which tell us that the figure is Christ.

In the catacomb painting shown above, the fourth figure is not to shown at all, but rather a bird over the three children. The branch in its beak suggests to me that the artist is connecting it to the dove in the story of Noah. This story of redemption in the Old Testament is connected to the New through that image of the dove, who also appears at the Baptism of the Lord.

This is of course an event that opens the way for our salvation. This New Testament resurrection in the spirit is available to all men through the Church, right now in this life, and is every bit as miraculous and wonderful as the saving of the three youths. We are partake in the divine nature and live out the sacramental life of the Church, which opens the way to a life of the greatest joy, if only we could believe it. The artist is connecting all of these events together through this painting, and it is why, I suggest, it would be appropriate for a baptistery in order to help deepen our faith.

There is something else that occurs to me. My understanding is that bodily resurrection is referred to by St Peter as a process of purification by fire; in so doing, he is echoing Wisdom 3 and Malachi 3, which both refer to purification by the Spirit.

The passage from Malachi 3, 1-4, refers to purification by fire, but begins as follows: “See where I am sending an angel of mine, to make the way ready for my coming. All at once the Lord will visit my temple; that Lord, so longed for, welcome herald of the divine covenant. Aye, says the Lord of hosts, he is coming; but who can bear the thought of that advent? Who will stand with head erect at his appearing? He will put men to a test fierce as the crucible...”

This passage from Malachi is quoted directly in Matthew 11,10, which tells us that John the Baptist is this messenger (angelos) who shows us Christ.

Here is an icon of John the Baptist, also known as the Forerunner, painted by Dr Stephane Rene, who works in the Neo-Coptic school. He is portrayed as an angelos,  a messenger in the manner of an angel along with the Baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove.

The angel of the Lord who appears in the furnace of in the book of Daniel could also be also seen, therefore, as a type of John the Baptist.

Regardless of the precise aspect of the theology that each artist has decided to portray, the full story that they reveal really should give us cause to praise God daily, just as the youths did, and sing their canticle in the Liturgy of the Hours!

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