Pope John Paul II told pilgrims who gathered in St. Peter's Square for his general audience May 14 that God's love will always prevail amid life's trials. “There is the assurance that the last word will be one of mercy and forgiveness,” he said. The Holy Father was offering his reflections on the Canticle of Azariah, which is found in the Book of Daniel, as part of his ongoing series of teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Canticle of Azariah is included in the story of the three young Hebrew men whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon condemned to death in a fiery furnace after they refused to betray their conscience and their faith by worshiping a statue that the king had erected.
John Paul said Azariah's prayer is “a prayer of repentance that does not lead to discouragement or fear but rather to hope.” His trials do not lead to bitterness but to a humble and contrite heart. “He offers to God the center of his existence – his very self – that has been renewed by trial as a sign of his conversion and his dedication to doing good,” he noted.
The Holy Father encouraged his listeners to pray the Canticle of Azariah at the dawn of the new day with the same inner spiritual attitude as Azariah: “The moment has now arrived for us to abandon the perverse ways of evil and its crooked ways and devious paths. We set off to follow the Lord, moved by the desire to seek his face.”
The canticle we have just heard is part of a Greek text in the Book of Daniel. It is a sincere and fervent plea to the Lord. It is the voice of Israel, which is experiencing difficult times of exile as a diaspora among the nations. In fact, the person who is singing the canticle is Azariah, a Jew, who lived in Babylon during the time of Israel's exile, after the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar.
Azariah, along with two other faithful Jews, is “in the fire” (Daniel 3:25). He is a martyr who is ready to confront death rather than betray his conscience and his faith. He has been condemned to death for having refused to adore the imperial statue.
This canticle considers persecution to be a just punishment that God uses to purify his sinful people. “By a proper judgment you have done all this,” Azariah confesses, “because of our sins” (see verse 28). It is, in a sense, a prayer of repentance that does not lead to discouragement or fear but rather to hope.
A Time of Purification
Clearly, leaving was bitter, the destruction was serious, the trial was harsh and God's judgment on the people's sin was severe: “We have in our day no prince, prophet or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you” (see verse 38). The Temple of Zion had been destroyed and the Lord no longer seemed to dwell among his people.
In the present situation, which is tragic, hope seeks its roots in the past, specifically in the promises that had been made to the ancestors. Therefore, reference is made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (see verse 35), whom God had assured of blessings and fruitfulness, lands and greatness, life and peace. God is faithful and will not be unfaithful to his promises. Although justice demands that Israel be punished for its sins, there is the assurance that the last word will be one of mercy and forgiveness. The prophet Ezekiel had already related these words from the Lord: “Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? ... Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live? ... For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies ...” (see Ezekiel 18:23–32). Surely this is now a time of humiliation: “For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere in the world this day because of our sins” (see Daniel 3:37). Yet, the expectation is not one of death but rather of new life after the purification.
A Contrite Heart
This man of prayer approaches the Lord and offers him his most precious and acceptable gift: a “contrite heart and humble spirit” (see verse 16; see Psalm 51:19). Indeed, he offers to God the center of his existence – his very self – that has been renewed by trial as a sign of his conversion and his dedication to doing good.
With such an interior attitude, fear ceases, confusion and shame die away (see Daniel 3:40), and his spirit is open to trusting in a better future, when the promises made to his ancestors will be fulfilled.
Seek God's Face
The final words of Azariah's plea as they appear in the Liturgy of the Hours have a strong emotional impact and a deep spiritual intensity: “And now with all our heart we follow thee, we fear thee and seek thy face” (see verse 41). They echo the words of another psalm: “‘Come,’ says my heart, ‘seek God's face’; your face, Lord, do I seek!” (see Psalm 27:8).
The moment has now arrived for us to abandon the perverse ways of evil and its crooked ways and devious paths (see Proverbs 2:15). We set off to follow the Lord, moved by the desire to seek his face. His face is not angry but full of love, as the merciful father was full of love when he saw his prodigal son (see Luke 15:11–32).
Let us conclude our reflection on the Canticle of Azariah with the prayer that was written by St. Maximus the Confessor for his Ascetic Discourse (see verses 37–39), where he actually takes this text from the prophet Daniel as a starting point. “In your name, Lord, do not abandon us forever, do not break your covenant and do not take away your mercy from us (see Daniel 3:34–35). In your pity, our Father who art in heaven, in the compassion of your only-begotten Son and in the mercy of your Holy Spirit ... Do not ignore our plea, O Lord, and do not abandon us forever.
“We do not put our trust in our works of justice but in your mercy, through which you preserve our race ... Do not detest our indignity but have compassion for us according to your great mercy and, according to the fullness of your mercy, wipe away our sins, so that without condemnation we may approach the presence of your holy glory and be considered worthy of the protection of your only-begotten Son.”
St. Maximus concludes with the following words: “Yes, O Lord and omnipotent Master, hear our plea, since we do not recognize any other besides you” (see Humanità e divinità di Cristo, Rome, 1979, p. 51–52).