December 17 – Three Holy Youths; Lazarus

The Three Holy Youths (VI cent. BC(E)) had two names each, making for a total of six. In Hebrew they were Hananiah (“Hannah is near”), Azariah (“has pumpernickel”), and Mishael (“the Russian diminutive of Michael of El”), but in Babylonian (Persian? Farsi? Wethreekingsian?) they were Shadrach (“fish shelf”), Meshach (“I, the Hut” (Jabba’s name for himself)), and Abednego (“my patella goes to sleep”). In the third chapter of the book of Daniel, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (“I have no idea how to parse this name”), set up a golden image (not, as per some reports, a giant chocolate bunny), and explained the necessity of worshiping same to his various ministers, whose ranks are listed in a very “Book of Armaments” manner: “the satraps, the prefects and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates and all the rulers of the provinces.” He then commanded a similarly-styled list of musical instruments be played: “the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, and bagpipe and all kinds of music.”

Anyone not bowing down to said image upon hearing said cacophony was to be tossed into a burning fiery furnace. Our six, sorry, three, youths told Nebby, “Our God can save us, but even if he doesn’t, we ain’t bowin’ to no stinkin’ idol.” They were duly tossed into the furnace, which was so hot that the tossers-in were toastified. God came through with flying colors, with a cool mist (I always wondered why this didn’t turn to steam, but hey), and with a mysterious fourth figure, whom some people take to be a pre-Incarnation visit by Jesus (although others don’t). In the Septuagint and some other Greek manuscripts, the youths then sang a lovely song that is not in the Masoretic Text, make of that what you will. (I tried to find a Jewish commentary or midrash on this story but in vain.) Neb had to admit that their God was bigger than his god, or at least better at fireproofing. He ordered that nobody in Babylon could badmouth the youths’ God, and rewarded the lads with a comfy lifestyle.

The firewalkers are so important in the Orthodox Church that they are the subjects of both the seventh and eighth odes of the Canon sung during Orthros (Matins). Their entire story is read during the Vespers of Holy Saturday (usually by yours truly in our parish; I love this story), and no one says “Skip a bit, brother.”

Lazarus of Bethany (I cent.) was the brother of Mary and Martha, and died. When he was still merely sick, his sisters went to find Jesus, who upon hearing the news, immediately dawdled for two days, some say to allow Lazarus to die so he could (SPOILER ALERT!) raise him. Some suggest raising someone who has been dead for four days is a bigger deal than someone only dead for two. At any rate, the apostles were afraid that if they went to Judea, Jesus would be killed, but they were right.

When our Lord reached M&M’s house, he inspired the shortest verse in the New Testament, “Jesus wept.” (Not “Jesus swept;” there is no record of Jesus doing housework in the Gospels; perhaps Martha swept.) He commanded that the tomb be opened, whereupon the ever-practical Martha pointed out, as delightfully phrased in the KJV and I quote, “Lord, by now he stinketh.” “Trust me,” Jesus implied. They opened the tomb, and he called out, “Lazarus! Get out here!” Lazarus, wrapped like a mummy, came out (you have my permission to envision Lon Chaney Jr. here, but only briefly), and if he stanketh, it doesn’t say.

After Jesus’ ascension, Lazarus either went to France and became Bishop of Marseille, the diocese of which he is the patron saint (Catholic version), or went to Cyprus and became bishop of Kiteia (Orthodox version). In the East, he is commemorated on the day before Palm Sunday (“Lazarus Saturday”).