Not Strictly Necessary: The Three Youths and St. Joseph (Vespers and Sunday before Christmas)

Daniel 3// The Song of Azariah; Matthew 1; Deuteronomy 10:14-21.

For the past three years, I have, with joy and some nostalgia, unwrapped my mother’s three little Goebel figurines, called “The Flight into Egypt”, and put them on a table that is too dangerously low for a grandmother with twelve grandkids. But I want it to be seen. For a while, there were only two figures—the Theotokos on the donkey, and an angel with a lantern. This is because I bought those two for my parents’ December 20th anniversary, and didn’t have enough money at the time to purchase St. Joseph as well. When I went back in a subsequent year to find him, there were none in stock. But when I sorrowfully told my mom about it, she declared, in her inimitable style, “Well, it doesn’t matter. He wasn’t strictly necessary!”

Not strictly necessary. This is the story of most of our lives, and we can take the righteous Joseph as our model. We are not in the “mainstream” of God’s holy story, but we are embraced by it, and given a role. We see this not only in the case of the foster-father of our Lord, but also with the three youths in the fiery furnace, whose story is an outlier in a book that commemorates Daniel, and whose odd names few of us could remember, either in the Hebrew or the Babylonian language—at least, until Veggie Tales came along.

The three youths, with Daniel, are not part of the genealogy of Jesus, a passage that we read from Matthew this coming Sunday. And St. Joseph isn’t actually part of Jesus’ ancestral line either! The last verse of the genealogy makes this clear: “and Jacob [was] the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” Here is a departure from the rest of the genealogy, where the father is named, occasionally supplemented by the mother. The three youths and Jacob were not strictly necessary. But, they are part of the story, and part of our inheritance.

In Vespers for the feast, we tell the story of the three young men whom King Nebuchudnezzar put into the furnace, and link them not only with Daniel but with God Himself:

As in a gentle shower ‘midst the flame, the Children of God rejoiced
as they walked about amidst the Spirit’s dew;
and in the flame they mystically did prefigure the Trinity
and the wondrous Incarnation of Christ God;
Since they were wise, by their faith in God
They quenched the power of the fire;
and righteous Daniel was also seen to muzzle lions in the den.
Since Thou, O Friend of man, art entreated by their prayers in our behalf,
rescue us all, O Savior, from the eternal fire that nought can quench,
and vouchsafe that we attain unto Thy Kingdom in the Heavens, O Lord.

And again, we sing:

When in the furnace of the blazing flame,
Thy holy and faithful Youths proved to be as in a cool, refreshing dew;
then did they mystically portray from before the time
that Thou wast to come from a Virgin whom Thy brightness would not burn.
As for Thy coming the second time in Thy dread glory as our God,
the wondrous Prophet and righteous man, great Daniel, clearly hath foretold,
when he cried out and said:
I beheld until the thrones were set in place
and the Judge sat for judgment; and then rushed forth the river of that fire,
from which may we be saved, by their entreaties, O our Master Christ.

Beside these two versicles, there is the well-known “Song of the Three,” which we as Orthodox have preserved in the LXX version of the Old Testament, and which has been sung liturgically in the East and West for centuries. In that remarkable song, the three young men call on all the elements of the entire cosmos, from angels down to the elements of the earth, to birds, fish, cattle, and human beings of every kind, to praise the Lord. And then they encourage their own hearts to praise, for God is able to release them from the danger—which He does!

Their story has become part of our liturgy, and helps us to think about the Incarnate Lord, the holy Theotokos, the Holy Trinity, and the rescuing hand of God. The Church was encouraged to remember these young men, along with others who were persecuted, in that long passage of Old Testament heroes from the book of Hebrews 11. We hear about them without their even being named:

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon,Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. …. All these were commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

What can it mean that they did not receive what had been promised? They were released, after all, without a hair of their head singed! They did not receive THE promise of God, His presence with us in the Incarnate Christ, the forgiveness of sins, Christ’s resurrection as a sign of the victory over death to come, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Though their episode in the furnace was dramatic and wonderful, the youths continued to live in Babylon, among an alien people, and did not return to Jerusalem or the Temple. Even more significantly, we can remember that, though there was One with them in the flames, they did not see the whole wonder of the Incarnate Lord. They did not know he would become an embryo, a tiny baby, and a man, who lived among a hostile world with unbelievable grace and power, who consented to death, and then who rose from the dead and ascended in glory. What they lived through in the furnace pre-figured what was to come, but it is only in retrospect that we know this. There was a mysterious Presence in the fire, but He had not yet called them “friend”—this kind of intimacy became possible only when God became Human, called his apostles and made arrangements for his Church, his Body. The three youths were not strictly necessary, but God folded them into the prequel to the great story. With us in every Divine Liturgy they worship—unseen, unless there is an icon of them on our walls! They saw amazing things in the furnace; but they would have been even more amazed could they have seen all that was to come!

Joseph, was given more knowledge of God’s plan, but also did not see the ending of it during his earthly life, so far as we know. Jesus would not have given the Theotokos into the hands of John had Joseph still been around to care for her. For that was St Joseph’s role, as we in the second half of our gospel reading:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave Him the name Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25)

We know, in fact, that St. Joseph was so aware of his special calling that he did not consummate their marriage after Jesus was born, either. Matthew is intent to show his readers that Mary was indeed a virgin who gave birth to the one who would be Immanuel. But Joseph was not about to insist upon his claim to that womb more spacious than the heavens—it had been occupied by the Holiest One of all, and his place with Mary was that of a Protector, and a provider. He had been told a great mystery by the angel about the identity of this child, who would be the Savior, and named Him (as instructed) “Jesus,” that is “The Lord saves.” His place would be to guide the donkey to Bethlehem, so that Scripture would be fulfilled, to rescue Jesus and the Theotokos out of the hand of Herod, and to return them to Nazareth, where he continued both as a kind of foster-father, and as a carpenter, providing for his family. After Jesus is twelve, we hear no more of St. Joseph, yet when this man took his unusual second place to a wife, he had a very exalted calling. Like the Baptist, the Righteous Joseph knew what made for true greatness: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Our respect for Joseph should grow when we remember the scandal that must have attended his fiancée’s predicament, and that certainly followed for many years—in the gospels, we hear Jesus charged with being illegitimate, and we hear the gossip of the townspeople. On hearing Jesus preach, the neighborhood largely dismissed Jesus, arguing that they knew very well where he came from—they knew his family! Indeed, the scandal surrounding the mystery of Mary’s conception followed for several generations: we have ancient records of salacious stories told about her conception, and how she was raped by a soldier. No doubt Joseph had to bear with a variety of stories like this as he protected the Theotokos and his family, both physically and emotionally.

He probably did not know the full extent of what God would bring from small beginnings. He had the word of the angel, but no gospels, no letters from Paul, not even (so far as we know) a prophecy of the death and resurrection of his foster-son. Perhaps he never even saw Jesus preach: there is no record of it! But he saw the wise and courageous young Jesus at the Temple, and he knew God’s pattern of bringing great things out of small beginnings. There was David, the shepherd boy, and Israel, the tiny God-fearing nation. And there was the strong word of the Lord from the Torah:

Thus said Moses to the sons of Israel: Behold, the heaven, and the Heaven of heaven, belong to the Lord thy God, the earth and all things that are therein. Yet the Lord chose your fathers to love them, and above all nations, as at this day He chose you out of their seed after them. Therefore ye shall circumcise the hardness of your heart, and ye shall not harden your neck. For the Lord our God, He is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, and strong, and terrible God, Who doth not respect persons, nor will He by any means accept a bribe; executing judgment for the stranger and orphan and widow, and He loveth the stranger to give him food and raiment. Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve Him, and shalt cleave to Him, and shalt swear by His Name. He is thy boast, and He is thy God, Who hath wrought for thee these great and glorious things, which thine eyes have seen. (Deuteronomy 10:14-21).

As a man who showed himself obedient to the angel’s words, it would seem likely that St. Joseph had taken God’s words to heart. God is the one in whom the faithful should boast, and not in their own strength. God cares for not only the strong but, most especially for the weak, whom He is able to make strong. God cares for the orphan, widow, and stranger: and God had asked him to care for this young woman rather than to make an example of her. Perhaps Joseph was not strictly necessary for the Incarnation. But God chose to use him, making of him an icon of humility and love.

In these days, then, we remember those who had supporting roles in the great drama, and God’s manner of honoring them by including them. All of us are, so to speak, among the supporting cast—few of us with many lines, or with any lines at all, in the major plot. But all of us have things to do, people to love and protect, places to go, and services to offer. God has no need of our services, but involves us anyway, calling us no longer “servants” but “friends.” As we engage in those things laid before us, whatever these tasks are, we join with the Three who encouraged the whole of creation to praise God, and with St. Joseph, who honored the Theotokos, for the sake of the One to be born of her, the One who would deliver us from Hades and death! With the holy, we who are humble in heart sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever.

“Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever.
Bless the Lord, you heavens, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever.
Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever….
Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever.
Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever.
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever.
Bless the Lord, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him forever; for He has rescued us from Hades and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us from the midst of the burning fiery furnace; from the midst of the fire He has delivered us.
Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for his mercy endures forever.
Bless Him, all who worship the Lord, the God of gods, sing praise to Him and give thanks to Him, for his mercy endures forever.”
(Daniel 3:35-37, 85-90//Song of Azariah 1:29-31, 63-68)

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