The first reading from yesterday’s Mass has stayed with me all day, and I find myself continuing to think about it. It was a passage from the Book of Daniel and tells the story of three young Israelites who are living in exile in Babylon about 550 years before the birth of Christ. They are among the Jewish nobility and because of their exceptional talents they were selected to serve in the royal court of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. It comes to the attention of the king, however, that these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, will not worship the statue the king had made. This makes the king very angry. If they continue to refuse, the king warns, he will have them cast into the white-hot furnace. King Nebuchadnezzar taunts them: “And who is the God who can deliver you out of my hands?” The three young men respond to the terrifying words of Nebuchadnezzar, saying: “There is no need for us to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue that you set up.”
It is a remarkable expression of faith. The young men are indifferent as to whether the Lord intervenes to save them in this moment. It does not affect their conviction of the truth that only the Lord is God. They do not wonder if the Lord has abandoned or forgotten them. They express their natural hope that He will save them. But their faith is not contingent on whether God does their will. Rather, their faith allows them to understand that it is their part to remain steadfast to what they know to be true, what they know to be real, even if they do not understand what the Lord might be doing in that moment.
The 19th century English saint, John Henry Newman, composed a prayer that expresses a contemporary response to the experiences that one faces in life as a follower of Christ and how we are to respond with faith. He writes: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it – if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
In the passage from Daniel, Our Lord intervenes and miraculously preserves the young men from the effects of the fire. But our lives tend to be like John Henry Newman’s, in which the Lord often allows us to experience trials and disappointments and sadnesses among our joys and triumphs. The experience of struggles does not mean He doesn’t exist, or that He doesn’t know us, or that He doesn’t love us – the crucifix should dispel any notion of God’s indifference to us. But we must approach our lives with humility, acknowledging the truth that we are small creatures whose time on this earth is so very brief. It is in heaven that, please God, we will spend an eternity marveling at the breadth of the fabric of Providence and finally come to understand the vital role we played in its unfolding by remaining steadfast in faith.