Updated: Mar 19, 2020
I was concelebrating Mass with my Dominican community in the priory this morning. Usually we have a few visitors, mostly students and staff from Providence College join us, but in keeping with the bishops directive suspending public Masses, sadly we had to turn them away at the door.
I’m not given much to crying, but I felt a tear run down my cheek during the first reading, a passage from the Book of Daniel known as the Prayer of Azariah.
If you know me, you know that context matters. The story is set during the Babylonian exile, when the Israelites were taken from their home and from the Temple in Jerusalem. For the ancient Israelites, the Temple was everything. It was the site of worship and sacrifice for the entire nation. Imagine a church that’s not just one building among many, but the only church to serve every Christian in the world. Then imagine it being destroyed and being sent far, far away.
Maybe you get where I’m going now. Daniel’s compatriots, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael (aka Shadrach, Meshach, and Abenego)--who were really smart young adults--draw the ire of King Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to bow down before a false idol. They are thrown into a white-hot furnace but are unharmed. From the furnace, Azariah prays in these words:
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, So let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame. (Daniel 3:38-40)
Separated from the Temple and thus unable to offer sacrifice to God in the usual way (“no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you”), Azariah prays that he and others can offer sacrifice to God in a different way: “with contrite heart and humble spirit.”
Maybe that’s a project for us, especially in the weeks leading up to Easter. As we adjust to a new normal, we have many opportunities to offer spiritual sacrifice, even if we can’t participate in the Mass. St. Paul writes “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19) That must mean that, wherever we are, however we find ourselves, we must have the capacity to worship God with the prayers we offer and the good works we do.
Azariah’s prayer is, specifically, that we sacrifice to God a “contrite heart and humble spirit.” One way we can do this--perhaps the best way--is to take the opportunity to go to confession this Lent. Here’s a helpful guide. Even where public Masses are not available, most churches provide opportunities to receive the sacrament of penance. (One priest in Maryland even set up drive-thru confessions!)
Praying with and for you.