During the prefeast season of Christmas the Church celebrates the memory of many of the Hebrew prophets. Especially commemorated are the prophet Daniel and his companions, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, the three Hebrew youths who refused to worship the idol of King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon and were thrown into a fiery furnace, only to find themselves singing and dancing in the flames together with a “fourth person” who is taken by the Church to be the prefiguration of Jesus Himself.1
Because the king’s order was strict and the furnace was very hot, the flame of the fire slew those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men . . . fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He said to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” He answered, “But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (Dan 3:22-25)
The festival of Daniel and the three young men is essentially a festival of faith in the one true God, the Lord of Israel who saves those who believe in Him, and who at the end of the ages will bring forth an everlasting kingdom to which even the pagan kings will be compelled to bear witness. Thus, at the end of his life Nebuchadnezzar himself is forced to testify of the God of the three youths who put him to shame:
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored Him who lives forever; for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing; and He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, “What doest Thou?” (Dan 4: 34-35)
King Darius, too, was brought to proclaim the one true God Most High when Daniel emerged untouched from the lion’s den in which the king had sealed him, saying, “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!” (Dan 6:16).
Then King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth: “Peace be multiplied to you. I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for He is the living God, enduring forever; His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and His dominion shall be to the end. He delivers and rescues, He works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, He who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.” (Dan 6:25-27)
The prophet Daniel was an apocalyptic seer whose visions are repeated in the New Testament book of Revelation, where the everlasting kingdom of God which he foretold is clearly identified with the kingdom of the Messiah-Christ, who is Jesus of Nazareth:
As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened ….I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan 7:9-10, 13-14)
As Christians celebrate the Winter Pascha they rejoice in the men of faith and vision who prophesied the coming of Christ, who Himself before Pilate prophesied that “hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:64). This is Jesus the King from whom “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, for ever and ever” (Dan 7: 18).
~Adapted from Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season
1 The feast of Daniel and the Three Young Men is kept on December 17. The book of Daniel frequently uses the Babylonian names for the four: Daniel was called Belteshazzar; Hananiah, Shadrach; Mishael, Meshach; Azariah, Abednego. In classical iconography the “fourth person” in the furnace is depicted as Jesus bearing great wings and entitled “the great counsel of the angels” from the prophecy of Isaiah (see Dan 3 and Is 9).