Bless the Lord all you works of the Lord
This Canticle is a flame that lights up the darkness in the time of persecution. It is a response to the persecutor who asks: "Where is your God?"
At the General Audience on Wednesday, 19 February, the Holy Father commented on the Canticle found in the third chapter of the Book of Daniel (vv. 52-57). It is a magnificent hymn in praise of God's transcendent glory. Sung by the three young men condemned to the fiery furnace for their fidelity to the God of Israel, the Canticle evokes the holiness and power of the Creator, who dwells among his people in his holy temple in Jerusalem. This prophetic celebration of God's closeness to his People prefigures the coming of the Son of God, who in the fullness of time "took flesh and dwelt among us". In her liturgy the Church in every age takes up this song of gratitude for God's merciful love, which guides all history to its appointed end.
1. "These three [young men] in the furnace with one voice sang, glorifying and blessing God..." (Dn 3,51). This sentence introduces the famous Canticle that we just heard in a fundamental passage. It is found in the Book of Daniel, in the section that has come down to us only in Greek, and is intoned by courageous witnesses of the faith, who did not wish to bow down in adoration to a statue of the king and preferred to face a tragic death: martyrdom in the fiery furnace.
Historical background: period of exile
They are three young Jewish men, whom the sacred author places in the historical context of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, the terrible Babylonian sovereign who destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and deported the Israelites to "the streams of Babylon" (cf. Ps 136 ). Even in extreme danger, when the flames are already licking their bodies, they find the strength to "praise, glorify and bless God", certain that the Lord of the cosmos and history will not abandon them to death and nothingness.
Rereading the event during the period of the Maccabees
2. The biblical author, who wrote several centuries later, portrays this heroic event to encourage his contemporaries to hold high the banner of the faith during the persecutions of the Syrian-Hellenistic kings of the second century B.C. Precisely then the courageous reaction of the Maccabees took place, combatants for the freedom of the faith and of the Hebrew tradition.
The Canticle, traditionally known as "of the three young men", is similar to a flame that lights up the darkness of the time of oppression and persecution, a time that has often been repeated in the history of Israel and of Christianity itself. We know that the persecutor does not always assume the violent and grim face of an oppressor, but often delights in isolating the just person with mocking and irony, asking him sarcastically: "Where is your God?" (Ps 41,4.11).
Praise transcendent Creator who dwells among his people
3. All creatures are involved in the blessing that the three young men raise to the Almighty Lord from the crucible of their trial. They weave a sort of multicoloured tapestry where the stars shine, the seasons flow, the animals move, the angels appear, and, above all, "servants of the Lord" sing, the "holy" and "the humble of heart" (cf. Dan 3,85.87).
The passage that was just proclaimed precedes this magnificant evocation of all creation. It constitutes the first part of the Canticle, that evokes the glorious presence of the Lord, transcendent yet close. Yes, because God is in heaven, where "he looks into the depths" (cf. 3,55), and he is also "in the temple of holy glory" of Zion (cf. 3,53). He is seated on the "throne" of his eternal and infinite "kingdom" (cf. 3,54) but is also "throned upon the cherubim" (cf. 3,55) in the ark of the covenant placed in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Jerusalem.
Fullness of love shown in sending his Son
4. He is a God who is above us, capable of saving us with his power; but also a God close to his People, in whose midst he willed to dwell in his "glorious holy temple", thus manifesting his love. A love that he will reveal fully in making his Son "full of grace and truth", "dwell among us" (cf. Jn 1,14). He will reveal the fullness of his love by sending his Son among us to share, in all things except sin, our condition marked by trials, oppression, loneliness and death.
The praise of the three young men to God our Saviour continues in various ways in the Church. For example, at the end of his Letter to the Corinthians, St Clement of Rome includes a long prayer of praise and confidence. It is woven throughout with biblical references and, perhaps echoes the early Roman liturgy. It is a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord who, despite the apparent triumph of evil, guides history to a happy end.
Prayer of Thanksgiving of St Clement of Rome
5. Here is a passage:
"You have opened the eyes of our hearts (Eph 1,18) to recognize that / you alone Jn 17,3) are highest in the highest heavens, / ever remaining holy among the holy. / You humble the violence of the arrogant (cf. Is 13,11), / overthrow the calculations of the nations (cf. Ps 32,10), / raise up the humble and humble the proud (cf. Jb 5,11); / you make rich and make poor, / kill and make alive (cf. Dt 32,39); / you alone are the benefactor of spirits and / the God of all flesh / You fathom the depths (cf. Dn 3,55) and observe men's deeds; / you are the aid of those in peril, Saviour of those in despair (cf. Jdt 9,11), / the Creator of every spirit and its Custodian. / You multiply the nations upon the earth and / from them all you have chosen those who love you / through Jesus Christ your beloved Servant, / through whom you have educated, sanctified, and honoured us" (Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, 59,3, in The Apostolic Fathers, 1978, Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville, Tennessee, USA, p. 50).
L'Osservatore Romano February 26, 2003