The first reading for Mass today is one that grabs our imagination and attention. In the book of Daniel, we hear the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (take a few minutes to read it here.)
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has set himself up as a god in Babylon, and is forcing the Jews living in exile there to treat him as such. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are having none of it. Their reward for their faithfulness to God? They get shoved into a furnace.
For most of us, the idea of suffering such a horrific fate because of our religious beliefs is absolutely unthinkable. We give almost no thought to the luxury of going to Mass whenever and wherever we wish, of wearing a cross, a crucifix or some other symbol of our faith openly, or having a religious item on our desk at work.
Yet so many Christians in our world today are suffering the fate of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. On March 10 in Washington, D.C, a joint project between the Knights of Columbus and a group called In Defense of Christians (IDC) was presented at a press conference. Reporters and aide workers gave witness to the genocide of Christians in the Middle East by ISIS. The stories are hard to bear, but they remind us that the those faithful to God, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are still called upon to hold on to their faith in impossibly brave manners.
I went to Iraq three weeks ago and met a 3-year-old girl whom ISIS members had thrown against a wall. She can no longer talk. Where was her father? He had been murdered, as he was a Christian,” stated Juliana Taimoorazy, an Assyrian Christian and president of Iraqi Christian Relief Council.
“The report has unearthed many stories that the world has not heard,” IDC President Toufic Baaklini told the packed room. “Like the story of Christian women who have been forced into sexual slavery and listed on ISIS slave menus that put a price on ‘Christian or Yazidi’ women by age.”
Baaklini told the story of a woman named Claudia, who was captured and raped repeatedly after ISIS militants saw that she bore a tattoo of a cross. Another woman, Khalia, fought off ISIS militants as they attempted to rape captive girls and take a 9-year-old as a wife.
In the reading from Daniel, the men’s complete abandonment to the will of God, their raw and honest sorrow for their sins and the sins of their people, and their ability to praise God under torturous circumstances end up changing the mind of the king. He releases the men from the furnace, and he wishes peace upon them and his people. (The story continues, but you’ll just have to read it yourself!)
It would be best for all if the horrors of persecution and genocide of modern-day Christians would have such a swift, decisive and positive solution. We do not know why God is asking this of his people in the Middle East. We do not know why God asked three young men in ancient Babylon to stand up for their faith and refuse to bow down to an idol. We do not know why God has allowed cancer to grow in the body of a loved one, or has allowed an accident which leaves a friend gravely injured.
The only thing we do know: Christ is always with us in our suffering. We are never, ever asked to be alone during hardship, trials, illness, even the torture we’ve discussed here. God is ours, and we are His people, forever and ever.