Sermon: A Benedicite in Eastertide.
Preached on 1st May 2011
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts, be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
During Advent and Lent, it is our custom at Matins to replace the canticle Te Deum Laudamus with the Benedicite:
O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord.
Praise him and magnify him for ever.
It’s not that Benedicite is particularly under-stated or penitential for the preparatory weeks before Christmas and Easter; it isn’t, but it is in a different register from the triumphant Latin hymn Te Deum Laudamus with its glorious musical settings. Where does Benedicite come from? Well, the clue comes at the end of the canticle with the verse:
O Ananias, Azarias and Misael, bless ye the Lord.
We recognise those characters as the three young men from the Book of Daniel, given the alternative names Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into the fiery furnace in Daniel chapter 3, for refusing to bow down in worship to the golden statue of the King. The canticle, which can be found in the Apocrypha, was included in Daniel 3 in the Greek version of the Old Testament we know as the Septuagint. It gives the verse,
O ye fire and heat, bless ye the Lord,
praise him and magnify him for ever -
special poignancy. Nothing in creation is beyond the service and praise of the Creator. Today’s first lesson is another deliverance story from the book of Daniel, the famous account of Daniel and the lions’ den. While both deliverance stories were set in the time of the Babylonian exile, the book as we know it was probably written in the Inter-Testamental period, in the second century BC, at a time when the Jews were being severely persecuted by the Graeco-Syrian despot, Antiochus IV. The Jews were being forced to conform to the civil and religious conventions of a Gentile, Greek state; for many this meant apostasy and had to be resisted. The Book of Daniel was written to help and strengthen them.
The Book of Daniel is particularly important because it witnesses to a development in the faith of Israel concerning death. The classical faith of the Old Testament had been that at death, human beings entered the underworld, called Sheol, a dusty, dark, silent, shadow of an existence, under the earth and far from the presence of God. Sheol was sometimes called ‘the pit’, and from it there seemed to be no release. But in the Book of Daniel we begin to see the emergence of a doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, symbolised by the deliverance stories of the fiery furnace and the lions’ den. This emerging doctrine is most clearly set out in the concluding chapter which states:
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
We note that this is a somewhat limited view of resurrection, only the very righteous and the very wicked will be raised, the former perhaps in compensation for lives cut short, the latter in order to face the justice that evaded them in this life. This new doctrine would continue to develop, and was still a matter of controversy in Jesus’ day; the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead; the Sadducees denied it.
The message of the Book of Daniel is that earthly kingdoms rise and fall, but God’s purposes are inviolable. Rulers and political systems fall under his judgment, especially when they deny or subvert the authority, justice and righteousness of heaven. God is not remote from the sufferings of his faithful ones; that sometimes, mysteriously, he does bring deliverance, but often, mysteriously, he permits persecution and death, but that is not the last word, for God has established a new and eternal age in which the seeming futility of human death will be overcome by life.
Moreover, as the three young men, in the imagination of the Inter-Testamental author, sang their Benedicite in the burning heart of the furnace,
O ye fire and heat, bless ye the Lord:
Praise him and magnify him for ever-
a deeply mysterious fourth man was seen to appear with them. When Daniel was thrown into the den of lions and prevailed, he stated that God had sent his angel to shut the lions’ mouths. And when later on, when in the apocalyptic imagery of the second half of the book, four beasts arise, symbolising the advent of world empires, when finally the fourth beast is slain, who is the one who now exercises power?
I saw one like a human being
coming on the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented to him.
To him was given dominion and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
This passage, which we read on Ascension Day, looks forward to coming of one ‘like a son of man’, like a human being. No wonder we see in these verses a fore-shadowing of Christ, one like a son of man, the fourth man, the angel of the Lord; it all seems to point forward to the idea of the Incarnation.
It also seems to point forward to Easter. The parallels are impressive. In Daniel 6, Daniel is blameless; his wisdom and his self-consecration were total. This provoked opposition and jealousy, and his adversaries looked for some charge to bring against him, but they could find none As the text says,
They could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him.
So they trumped up a silly law, that anyone found praying to any ‘god’ other than the King should be thrown to the lions. But Daniel, as one who was faithful to the one true God continued to pray daily to Israel’s God. When they reported him, the King was greatly distressed; he wanted to save Daniel but he couldn’t. Daniel descended into the pit, a stone covered the entrance, and the stone was sealed and then doubly sealed with the king’s signet and the signets of his officials. Sealed in the darkness of the pit, a lived Sheol, and throughout the darkness of night, it was at day-break that Daniel’s deliverance was revealed, as up from and out of the pit he arose.
So we gather this morning to worship one who was just, innocent, sinless, who was renowned for his wisdom, who attracted jealousy and opposition, who was unjustly betrayed and accused, but who continued to be obedient to Israel’s God. One in whom authority, in the person of Pontius Pilate, could find no fault, and who wanted to release him, but even with the might of Rome behind him, found himself powerless because of the interpretation of law. One who was executed, who was crucified and died, and was laid in a pit, and sealed not only with a stone, but as St Matthew’s Gospel states, the guards sealed the stone, perhaps with wax or clay. Until at day-break, at sunrise, on the first day of the week, he was revealed as the living One.
The deliverance stories of Daniel point us forward to Christ. Of course, the stories were not meant to suggest that God would step in to deliver his faithful ones from martyrdom, from persecution, from suffering. The story of the cross itself is all about the mystery of suffering into which we enter, the cruelty and brutality of sin and wickedness, and what God is doing to redeem it. But the faith of the Book of Daniel is in the reality of the coming kingdom, a kingdom which neither human power nor cruelty can destroy. And so in Christ, we see that death itself is vanquished, Christ the first fruits of the harvest of the dead; we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Which is why, in William Draper’s paraphrase of St Francis’ Benedicite-type canticle, we can dare to sing
O thou, most kind and gentle death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise him, alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ the Lord the way hath trod: Alleluia.