Today is January 1, so Happy New Year and good riddance to last year! Except Parker was born and, breaking news: Julia and Ben got engaged on December 13! We had 4 alpaca babies born, one niece born, one wedding - so 2020 wasn't all bad. But I'm glad to see it go just the same.
Today is also the 8th day of Christmas. I do not expect my true love to give me eight maids-a-milking today. Where in the world would I put them? And the cows, for that matter? Never mind the seven swans a-swimming and six geese a-laying (though since the chickens seem to be off of laying I'd be happy for the eggs). I'd take the five golden rings as long as they are ethically mined and sustainably sourced. Four calling birds would just make too much racket; same with the three French hens (but - do they lay eggs?). Two turtledoves would be too messy, and the partridge? I don't have a pear tree.
Christmas actually only begins on Christmas Day. It ends at Epiphany, on January 6. Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day, as that is the day the story ends with the visit of the Magi (though they probably didn't arrive until Jesus was more of a toddler than an infant in a manger). So I am not off when I wish you a Merry Christmas!
I have held on to the images of the Advent Wreath as the busy-ness of the holiday became, at times, overwhelming. In our 2 bedroom house we had three additional adults and an infant visiting - and I loved every minute. But the cooking and cleaning did get a little stressful at times.
Anyway, back to the wreath. If we accept the Love of God for ourselves, then we have Hope. And hope brings Peace - inner peace even if everything around us is falling apart. Peace brings Joy that allows us to grab hold of and believe in the Love of God. It goes around and around, which is why the traditional form is a wreath, or circle.
I didn't write though, about the middle of that wreath, and I think I would be as guilty as those that frustrate me if I didn't write about the Christ Candle, because isn't Christ what Christmas is all about?
Now, I think I wrote before but I'll say it again: as a Christian, I call that candle in the middle of the wreath the Christ Candle because to me Christ is the divine, the Son of God. But if you are not Christian, or if you aren't sure what you believe, I think God is quite big enough to enfold you in Hope, Peace, Joy and Love regardless of what or who you believe her/him/? to be. I think what is important is that you recognize the power of the divine, the creator, the holy presence. I started to capitalize "holy," but then I thought that might be perceived as too Christian, and too patriarchal, so I changed it to a lower case h. The point is that God is there and loves you and me and them.
I finally got back to my morning devotions and I am reading the book of Daniel. You might only know the story of Daniel in the Lion's Den, when Daniel was pitched into a cage full of hungry lions so they would eat him, but they didn't. I'm not there yet (I'm at chapter 4, and I think that is chapter 6 but don't quote me).
Almost as well known is the story of the fiery furnace. As I read that yesterday I noticed things that I hadn't before - a great plug for actually reading the Bible - and there was the answer to my prayer about what to write about.
So, here is the story of Daniel, up to chapter 3. Daniel and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, were exiled to Babylon with the Hebrew people. King Nebuchadnezzar wanted to show his largesse so he directed his advisors to bring some members of the Hebrew royal family and nobility to live in the palace. These were to be "young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king's palace" (Daniel 1:3-4). You can picture these guys - good looking, smart, physically fit, well educated.
Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were brought to the king's palace, where the palace master promptly changed their names. They were now Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Have you ever been called the wrong name? At first it is just a mistake, easily corrected. But if the same person keeps calling you the wrong name, it becomes really annoying. And if the person insists on calling you the wrong name, it is a power play. This person either doesn't care to learn your correct name or wants to strip you of the identity you have. I've been called the wrong name before by people who should know better - and they finally did get it right so it must have been the former. But it did make me feel like they really didn't care about me as a person.
So the king assigned new names to Daniel and his friends, which served to strip them of their Hebrew identities. They were to be treated as royalty. Daniel, however, resolved not to defile himself by eating the food of the palace. This offended the king, but Daniel insisted. He suggested that he and his friends be allowed to eat their usual diets of vegetables and water for ten days. If at the end of ten days they were less healthy than their palace counterparts then the palace master could deal with them as he saw fit. In this way Daniel proved that he was as healthy, or healthier, by eating his familiar food than he would be eating the rich palace food.
Daniel refused to surrender his identity and his faith.
King Nebuchadnezzar, one night, had a nightmare and he summoned his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and advisers to come and interpret the dream. He had such confidence in them that if they could not a) tell him the dream and b) tell him what it meant, they would be torn "limb from limb" (Daniel 2:5). Of course they couldn't do it, so the king flew into a rage and commanded that all the wise men, including Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (AKA Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) be executed.
Daniel, being wise and a man of God, asked that the king give them a little more time. He and his friends prayed and God told them the dream and the interpretation. Daniel went and interpreted the dream for the king. Long story short, the four men were promoted within the palace. This is important to the story because Daniel was then made ruler over all of the province of Babylon, and he asked the king to appoint Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) to administer the affairs of Babylon. They went to Babylon while Daniel stayed at Nebuchadnezzar's court (Daniel2:46-48). Nebuchadnezzar was so impressed that he declared that Daniel's god was truly the God of gods and Lord of kings! (Daniel 2:47).
But Nebuchadnezzar was a proud and powerful king and couldn't resist building a huge golden statue in Babylon, where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were now presiding over the affairs of the province. Everyone was commanded to fall down and worship this statue, and anyone who didn't would be thrown into a blazing furnace. This is all in chapter 3.
Of course, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel was still at the palace) refused, and they were ratted out by some of the advisers to the king. The king was furious, and gave them one more chance, which they refused because, as they told him, "If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up." (Daniel 3:17-18)
Well, the king was so mad that he ordered the furnace to be heated to seven times more than usual. It was so hot that the strongest guards of the army, who bound Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were killed when they threw the Hebrew men in - fully clothed and bound.
Somehow Nebuchadnezzar was able to watch all this, because he rose up quickly and said, essentially, "Hold on! Didn't we throw 3 men into the fire? I see four!" (Daniel 3:24).
The four men were unbound (remember Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were bound when they were tossed in) and walking around in the fire. They weren't hurt, and the king said,
"...the fourth has the appearance of a god." (Daniel 3:25) So the king let them out of the furnace, they were unhurt, the king promoted them again, and again recognized the power of the God of the Hebrew people. Of course things will go awry again, because Daniel has to get thrown to the lions, but that is another story.
No one thinks of the fiery furnace as a Christmas story, but bear with me. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) kept God (as represented by the Christ Candle in my Advent Wreath) at the center of their lives. God gave them hope, peace, love, and joy and because they refused to move away from or to replace their faith in the God they knew they were able to face this with confidence that whatever the outcome all would be right. Now some would argue that it is easy to keep God at the center when you are living in a palace, eating simple food by choice not necessity, and working for a king. But I suggest to you that it is not. They had so much to lose if they kept God at the center. It would have been so easy, and so understandable, to put themselves at the center and do was was easy, comfortable, and expedient.
They didn't do that. And the Bible says that there was a fourth man, who had the appearance of a god, in the furnace with the men. Could that have been Jesus, as yet unborn? I always imagined the fourth man to be an angel, and perhaps he was, but at this time of Christmas I imagine the fourth man to be God.
If we can keep God at the center of our lives, God will provide us with hope, peace, joy, and love. Not, perhaps, the way we want them. Some of us live in places of violence, some of us live in hopeless situations. Some of us struggle to find joy, and some of us don't believe that we are loved, because our circumstances have taught us otherwise. Is it easy? No, but Jesus said that his burden is easy and his yoke light (Matthew 11:30). Much will be given us, and much will be asked of us (Luke 12:48) .
I'm guessing that most of the people who got thrown into the furnace didn't survive. Some of us will not survive our personal fiery furnaces - I don't believe that faith in Jesus keeps us safe from COVID, for example. And plenty of people of deep faith have died, or even been martyred. But their hope, peace, joy and love is not that of the advertisers or Christmas card writers. They had hope that God would be with them through and beyond the end of their earthly lives. They took peace from that. They had hope and the resulting peace that things on earth will get better, and that God's kingdom will come, on earth as it is in heaven. They took joy in that, and accepted the love of God. Not love that includes kisses beginning with K, fabulous vacations, brand new cars in the driveway, or Martha Stewart designed holidays.
And with practice, I think we can, too.
Celebrate the last six days of Christmas, and keep your Christ candle - by whatever name you call it - at the center of your wreath. Merry Christmas, and a very happy 2021 to you and yours.
"The Advent Wreath." Father Julian's Blog. December 1, 2013. Father Julian's Blog: The Advent Wreath. Accessed January 1, 2021