Because this was the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, this weekend we sang and heard about the three youths in the fiery furnace. Here is part of that story, from Daniel 3:
Then Nebuchadnezzar in rage and anger gave orders to bring Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego; then these men were brought before the king. Nebuchadnezzar responded and said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? “Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, very well. But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with wrath, and his facial expression was altered toward Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. He answered by giving orders to heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated. He commanded certain valiant warriors who were in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego in order to cast them into the furnace of blazing fire. Then these men were tied up in their trousers, their coats, their caps and their other clothes, and were cast into the midst of the furnace of blazing fire. For this reason, because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace had been made extremely hot, the flame of the fire slew those men who carried up Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. But these three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, fell into the midst of the furnace of blazing fire still tied up.
Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astounded and stood up in haste; he said to his high officials, “Was it not three men we cast bound into the midst of the fire?” They replied to the king, “Certainly, O king.” He said, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the furnace of blazing fire; he responded and said, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, come out, you servants of the Most High God, and come here!”
Then Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego came out of the midst of the fire. The satraps, the prefects, the governors and the king’s high officials gathered around and saw in regard to these men that the fire had no effect on the bodies of these men nor was the hair of their head singed, nor were their trousers damaged, nor had the smell of fire even come upon them. Nebuchadnezzar responded and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him, violating the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies so as not to serve or worship any god except their own God.
In his wonderful sermon, our priest talked about the opportunity we are all presented with at some point--to glorify God even though we are in a fiery furnace of suffering.
This story comes up frequently in church, and it never fails to move me. "When the holy Children were cast into the furnace of fire, they changed the fire into dew by their hymnody, as they cried out thus: Blessed are Thou, O Lord, the God of our Fathers."
But this morning as we sang about the youths in the furnace, I thought about the differing thermal environments of various sufferings. Sometimes in sorrow or temptation we feel that we are burning, blistering, parched, or asphyxiating, and other times, we feel that we are somehow freezing--for example, grief, isolation, depression, disappointment, failure, or even deep fatigue can seem like an endless and all-penetrating inner cold. In fact, we can even "feel" that we have lost all feeling--become numb, or mostly numb. And I'm not speaking only of the personal level--certain cultural or social/institutional conditions can create a kind of chill from which there seems no escape. Yet God's presence does not leave us, no matter how extreme our situation. Thinking about that presence while I stood there singing in the choir, I vaguely remembered something I'd read about the polar explorer Shackleton, so this evening, I looked it up--here's that story as found in Alexander Fabry's essay (http://www.theharvardadvocate.com/archives/2007/winter/features_fabry.html)
...After the loss of the Endurance , Shackleton and his men set out on foot, dragging three lifeboats with them until the pack ice was loosened and melted by the comparative warmth of summer. They found refuge on the desolate Elephant Island, and Shackleton set off to find help, navigating a small open boat to South Georgia, incredibly surviving and arranging the rescue of his companions...
...After Shackleton miraculously found his way across 800 miles of open ocean to South Georgia , a further obstacle remained. He had arrived on the wrong side of the island, and the small boat which had carried him so far was rudderless and unfit for journey. They were at the very end of their strength; no-one had ever traversed the island before. First they had marched, then sailed, and now they completed the third impossibility, and climbed towards help. In South , Shackleton concluded his account of the journey by relating a physical encounter with the intangible and ineffable: “I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us'…
As Fabry points out, this later inspired T.S. Eliot to write,
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.
Furnace suffering can feel claustophobic; polar suffering can feel terrifyingly open-ended--huge yet closed skies, trackless wastes, disorientation, a sense of lostness.
Obviously, I'm not in any position to make claims identifying the presence with the explorers--was it a delusion? Was it an angel? Who knows? All I know is that the story speaks to me of grace and presence appearing unexpectedly in the midst of all kinds of suffering, the trial by fire and the ordeal of ice.