Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Bel and the Dragon in the Liturgy of Lent

On the Tuesday of Passion week, the Epistle of the Mass is traditionally the episode of the book of Daniel known as “Bel and the Dragon”, the fourteenth and final chapter in the Vulgate. This is one of the deuterocanonical parts of the book, along with the story of Susanna (chapter 13), which is read earlier in Lent, and the long section of chapter 3 known as “the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Children.” Of the latter two, a portion of the Prayer is read as the Epistle on Thursday of this week; the Song is one of the most commonly used canticles in all historical Christian liturgies, known from its opening word in Latin as the Benedicite.

This episode is the second time Daniel is thrown into a den of lions, the first being in the protocanonical sixth chapter. In the Patrologia Latina, more citations of chapter 6 are listed than of chapter 14, but in point of fact, the two stories are very similar, and many of the citations are vague enough that they could really refer to either one. The first verses in the Missal paraphrase the Biblical text, and summarize that the Babylonians rose up against Daniel because he destroyed two of their idols: a statue called Bel, which he unmasked as a fraud that didn’t really eat the food laid out for it every night, and a “dragon” (or “serpent”) which he killed by stuffing a lump of pitch, fat and hair down its throat. (“Bel” derives from the name “Baal”, a very nasty character who is often mentioned in the books of Kings) They therefore force King Cyrus to throw Daniel to the lions, which (as in the earlier episode) have been deliberately starved, but nevertheless do not touch the prophet; after a week he is discovered safe and sound, and his persecutors are themselves then thrown into the pit and devoured. I suspect that the version from chapter 14 was the one chosen for liturgical use because of the picturesque episode of the angel (verses 32-38), who carries the prophet Habakkuk by his hair over 500 miles from Judaea to Babylon, in order to bring food to Daniel.

Habakkuk and the Angel, by Gian Lorenso Bernini. ca. 1656-61; in the Chigi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Bede735)
In ancient Christian frescoes and sarcophagi, Daniel is often shown in the lions’ den nude. His emergence from the den or “pit” represents the Resurrection of Christ, which is the general theme behind so many early Christian artworks; his nudity therefore demonstrates the reality of the human nature and human body in which Christ rose, against the many early heretics who denied them. (The prophet Jonah, who represents Christ’s body in his own, according to the Lord’s own explanation, is also frequently shown nude for the same reason.) However, this theme does not appear in early Christian writings.

Daniel in the Lions’ Den; fresco of the 3rd century in the Catacomb of Ss Peter and Marcellinus
As is so often the case, the Church Fathers’ interpretation of the episode indicates why it was chosen to be read in Lent. Already in the third century, St Cyprian of Carthage explains that “Daniel, when he was compelled to adore the idol Bel that the people and king then worshipped, to assert the honor of his God with full faith and liberty, cried out, saying, ‘I worship nothing but the Lord my God, who made heaven and earth.’ ” (Epistle 61, known as “The Exhortation to Martyrdom”, PL IV 354A) These words, so similar to the opening of the baptismal Creed, reminded the ancient catechumens not only of the Faith which they wished to profess, but also that they might very well have been called to bear witness to it as martyrs, as indeed Cyprian himself did. In his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (the first such commentary among the works of the Fathers), the story is read as an exhortation to trust in God. “To those who seek the kingdom and the justice of God, He promises that all things will be added; for, since all things belong to God, nothing can be lacking to him that has God, if he himself is not lacking to God. Thus a meal was arranged divinely for Daniel, when he was closed in the lions’ den by the king’s order; and among the hungry beasts, who did yet spare him, the man of God was fed.” (PL 4, 534A)

Once the era of persecution had passed, Daniel was frequently represented by the Fathers as a moral model. For St Zeno of Verona, a contemporary of St Ambrose, Daniel shows us the power of fasting as a spiritual discipline, an important theme for Lent. “Daniel, unarmed, killed a dragon that was terrible to the peoples, and being thrown to the lions, ate in the middle of his danger, he who was wont to fast (Dan. 9, 3) when he was out of danger. (Tractatus 2.8.3 de Timore, PL XI 324A) For Ambrose himself, this also makes him a model of the virtue of courage. “Daniel … was so wise that, in the midst of lions irritated by hunger, he was not weakened (or ‘disheartened’) by any dread of the beasts’ savagery; so courageous, that he could eat without fear of provoking them by his example to eat him.” (De Officiis, 2.4.11, PL XVI 106C)

In his treatise “On God’s Promises and Predictions” St Quodvultdeus, bishop of Carthage in the mid-5th century, sums up these various traditions. Daniel by his actions “teaches and shows that only the one true God is to be worshipped, abandoning vain superstitions, by which the prophet saw that not only the Babylonians, but indeed the whole world was held captive under the power of demons. (God) also showed to his herald that in the future it would be freed from their dominion by the grace of Christ the Lord. But because, as someone once said ‘Truth begets hatred’ (the Roman playwright Terence, in Andria, 1.1.68) … the Babylonians put him into the lions’ den to be devoured. … Therefore, when Daniel was brought out … his enemies were given to the lions as food, that they might perish. These things were done as a symbol of Daniel’s Lord, who prayed for His own, saying ‘Hand not over to the beasts the soul that confesseth Thee (Psalm 73, 19).’ For that roaring lion, the devil, who wandereth about seeking whom he may devour, (1 Peter 5, 8), consumes the enemies of our prophet, Christ the Lord, when he finds them, having received power over them.”

Daniel in the Lion’s Den; sculpted capital in the Abbey of Sant’Antimo in Montalcino, Italy, by the anonymous Romanesque sculptor known as the Master of Cabestany, active in the second half of the 12th century. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko.) Daniel in the center, surrounded by lions, raises his hands in a gesture very similar to that of the priest at Mass during the Our Father; the angel, immediately to the right, is the deacon, and Habakkuk holds his basket of food under a veil, as the subdeacon holds the paten. – The Master of Cabestany is named for a small town near Perpignan, France, where he did a particularly beautiful sculpted tympanum over the door of one of the churches. Well over 100 pieces have been attributed to him and his workshop, in a wide range of places throughout southern France and northern Spain. The presence of three of his pieces in Tuscany suggests that he may have traveled as a pilgrim to Rome, and paid his way by doing sculpures at various stops along the way. In his time, Sant’Antimo was a very rich and important territorial abbey which governed a large tract of Tuscany, fully able to pay him a good price for his work, as well as a popular stop for pilgrims on the via Francigena.

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