As a child of the South, accustomed to the tones and the tales of my region, I was well aware of the”fires of hell”. Roadside signs proclaimed the eternal destiny of those who were not saved. I have discovered in later years, that many adult Christians remain committed to the most literal possible version of the fires of hell and will argue as though heaven itself depended on the burning flesh of the wretched souls in torment.
This does not sound like the beginning of a Christmas-themed posting. It is the time of year that we sing of “Peace on Earth, good-will towards men,” and if at all possible we forget those men who, according to some, will never celebrate Christmas as they themselves become an eternal yule log to the comfort of so many.
Strangely, the Orthodox Church, on the Sunday prior to Christmas, celebrates the Forefathers of Christ, remembering the righteous figures of the Old Testament whose work prefigured Christ’s coming into the world. The chiefest of all those figures, whose icon adorns the central place of Orthodox veneration on that Sunday, is the icon of the Three Young Men, those who were tortured in the furnace of Babylon and refused to worship the false image of the wicked king.
The story of the Three Young Men is recounted in the book of Daniel, and in an expanded form in the Greek (LXX) edition of Daniel. There, we are told that though the young men refused the King’s order and were tossed into a furnace heated seven times hotter than is wont:
The Angel of the Lord went down into the furnace to join [them], and shook off the fiery flame of the furnace. He made the inside of the furnace to be as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it, so that the fire did not touch them at all, or cause them pain, or trouble them.
Here stands the wonder of Christmas, given to us in the typological imagery of the Old Testament! A Nativity hymn in the Church declares: “The children of the Old Covenant who walked in the fire, yet were not burnt, prefigured the womb of the Maiden, which remained sealed when she gave birth in fashion past nature.” Like the fire that Moses saw present in the burning bush, the fire burns but does not consume. It is the Divine Energy of God, according to a number of fathers. “Our God is a consuming fire,” (Deuteronomy 4:24). He is also a fire that burns and yet does not consume.
Christ Himself says, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luk 12:49 NKJ) Christmas is also the kindling of that fire. At His coming, all things approach their judgment. Wise men find their redemption, a wicked king finds his downfall. Angels find their voices and raise them in a manner that exceeds any praise ever offered. Israel becomes the God-trodden land and the Land of Promise becomes the Land of Fulfillment.
This same fire is the fire which alights upon the heads of the Apostles at Pentecost and fills them with the Spirit. It is the transforming fire of God’s grace which burns up our dross and refines the works of righteousness.
O Holy Night, the light is brightly shining!