While the Church Universal today commemorates the heavenly birthday of St. Eusebius of Vercelli, bishop and martyr, she also recalls the exemplary holiness of three Old Testament saints, whose names are enrolled in the traditional Roman Martyrology immediately following that of St. Eusebius:
This Day, the Sixteenth Day of December
St. Eusebius, bishop of Vercelli and martyr, mentioned on the 1st of August, and also on the 15th of this month.
The young men, Ananias, Azarias and Misael, whose bodies were buried in a cavern at Babylon.
Ananias, Azarias, and Misael (Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael) are also known by their Babylonian by-names of Sidrach, Misach, and Abdenago (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego). Traditionally they are known by the collective designation of "The Three Children" or "The Three Hebrew Children." In this case "child" is a literal rendering of the Hebrew word ben, "a son," which can -- and in this case does, as the Martyrology indicates -- refer to a young man rather than a boy or a youth. Ananias, Azarias, and Misael were Jews who along with the prophet St. Daniel were carried away into exile in 605/4 B.C. by King Nabuchodonosor (605-561 B.C.) during the last years of the Kingdom of Judah, and the Martyrology attests to the tradition that they remained in Babylon for the rest of their lives, presumably dying before the end of the Babylonian Exile in 539/8 B.C. One Jewish tradition claims that they were royal Davidic princes, being descendants of King Ezekias of Judah. However, St. Jerome knows nothing of such a tradition, for he says Daniel alone was of the Tribe of Judah while his companions belonged to other Israelite tribes. Though it is today fashionable in certain quarters to deny or doubt their existence, the Church has always maintained that they and their words and deeds are historical. Virtually everything we know of them comes from the Book of Daniel, most which was written by their friend and companion Daniel in the 500s B.C. Daniel's friends figure prominently in two episodes in the Book of Daniel. The first episode is related in the first chapter of the book, and is summarized by the old Catholic Encyclopedia in this way:
When still a youth, probably about fourteen years of age, [Daniel] was carried captive to Babylon by Nabuchodonosor in the fourth year of the reign of Joakim (605 B.C.). There, with three other youths of equal rank named Ananias, Misael and Azarias, he was entrusted to the care of Asphenez, the master of the king's eunuchs, and was educated in the language and learning of the "Chaldeans", whereby are meant the professors of divination, magic, and astrology in Babylon (i, 3, 4). From this passage Jewish tradition has inferred that Daniel and his companions were made eunuchs; but this does not necessarily follow; the master of the eunuchs simply trained these Jewish youths, among others, with a view to their entering the king's service (i, 5). Daniel now received the new name of Baltassar [Heb. Belteshazzar] (Babyl. Balâtsu-usur, "Bel protect his life"), and, in agreement with Ananias, Misael, and Azarias, who received similarly the new names of Sidrach, Misach, and Abdenago, respectively, asked and obtained permission not to use the special food from the royal table provided for those under training, and to be limited to vegetable diet. At the end of three years Daniel and his three companions appeared before the king, who found that they excelled all the others who had been educated with them, and thereupon promoted them to a place in his court. Henceforth, whenever the prince tested them, they proved superior to "all the diviners, and wise men, that were in all his kingdom" (i, 7-20).
The experiences of Daniel and the Three Children teach us of the excellence of the virtues of faith, obedience, simplicity, and purity, while also showing the superiority of the divine wisdom and law to the wisdom and customs of the heathen. Even as they refused to eat food that was ritually unclean, so we must abhor every sort of spiritual defilement. They were also exemplary among the exiled Jews in resisting the social pressure of conforming to pagan beliefs and practices, to which many of their fellow Jews succumbed during those years. In addition, both Christian and Jewish tradition stress the holy chastity of the Three Children.
Much the same lessons are taught in the second episode in the Book of Daniel in which the Three Children are prominent: the story of Nabuchodonosor's great idol and the miracle in the fiery furnace, which is told in the third chapter of the book. God's sending a "son of God" to save the Three Children from being incinerated in the fiery furnace foreshadowed the wondrous salvation accomplished by the Son of God which saves God's faithful servants from the unquenchable fires of hell. (A Jewish tradition even identifies the angel who saved the Three Children as St. Gabriel the Archangel whom God later would send to proclaim the Annunciation to Our Lady, while another tradition says this miracle occurred on the Day of Atonement, which foreshadowed Christ's work of atonement.) In addition, Nabuchodonosor's attempt to coerce everyone in his realm to adore his great idol foreshadowed the later attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes to eliminate the Jewish religion in the 160s B.C., as well as the insistence of the pagan Roman Emperors in the early centuries of the Christian Era that everyone except the Jews were obliged under pain of death to adore the Emperor as a god. The great courage and total faith of Sts. Ananias, Azarias, and Misael have ever since inspired the Faithful to imitate their determination to defy the powers of this fallen world even in the face of sadistic torture and cruel death, laying down their lives gladly in holy martyrdom.
The victory that the Three Children won in Nabuchodonosor's fiery furnace has also bequeathed a treasure of riches to the liturgical prayers and devotions of the Church -- for the Holy Spirit has ensured that the humble and confident prayer of St. Azarias, along with the lovely and triumphant Canticle of the Three Children (the Benedicite) that they sang in the midst of the flames were preserved for posterity and subsequently included in the memoirs of St. Daniel the Prophet. The Church holds the Benedicite in such high regard that in the traditional Roman Breviary, she sings the Canticle of the Three Children at Lauds on Sundays and festivals. Blessed Leo XIII in 1884 also granted an indulgence to any who prayed the Canticle along with the post-Communion prayers of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure in thanksgiving following Mass and Holy Communion. The Canticle is also traditionally sung during all four Ember Saturdays of the year (including Ember Saturday of Advent tomorrow), and the story of the miraculous deliverance of the Three Children is traditionally read at the Mass of the Easter Vigil. Along with the divine praises of the Benedicite, the Church also invokes the mercy of God for our own deliverance from the fires of our disordered passions:
O God, who didst allay the flames of fire for the three young men, grant in Thy mercy that we Thy servants may not be consumed by the flame of vice.
Given this generation's celebration of sins of the flesh and inordinate desires, this is a prayer we should offer to God all the more frequently, remembering the purity of Sts. Ananias, Azaria, and Misael. And while makers of motion pictures may promote and justify apostasy in the face of cruel persecution, let us rather ask God for the grace to join with the Three Children in telling modern Nabuchodonosors:
"Behold, our God, whom we worship, is able to save us from the furnace of burning fire, and to deliver us out of thy hands, O king. But if He will not, be it known to thee, O king, that we will not worship thy gods, nor adore the golden statue which thou hast set up." (Dan. 3:17-18)
Pray for us!