Let’s just get a couple of things out of the way right away.
This is not a reading one expects to hear in December. Traditionally the readings leading up to Christmas are either prophetic readings about the Israelite people’s expections of God’s saving action, or apocalyptic readings imagining the second coming of Christ. Of course, what we’re encountering everywhere else is Christmas stories – over and over and over again – either secular stories or sacred stories. Esther seems like an odd choice on the second Sunday of Advent, especially when the theme for this Sunday is usually peace. This is hardly a peaceful story.
The other thing about this story is that reading it from a contemporary Christian perspective is very different from hearing it the way it was told at the time it was written – and different still from the way it’s heard in Jewish communities still today. I read it as a Christian feminist, and see a woman who is dependent on the men in her life to determine her destiny. She is beautiful, yes, and she is brave, but she takes very little initiative. She responds to the suggestions and commands of the men around her – her kinsman Mordecai, her husband the king, the evil Haman, and even the eunuch whom she befriends in the royal harem. Actually, that last is one of the few choices given her in the story. It is her kindness to one of the royal eunuchs that results in him helping her find her way through the harem system and eventually be chosen by the king as his new wife and queen. The only woman in the story who actually chooses her own destiny is the former queen Vashti, who was executed for refusing to parade in front of the king and his guests at his command. Perhaps this is the only way the story can be told, given it’s a product of a patriarchal society, but it’s rather disappointing for those of us who want strong women models from Scripture. When Esther finally does get a choice and issues a command, she orders retaliative violence against the people who were going to attack her people. An audience of that time would cheer! Us, on this Sunday we’re reflecting on peace? Maybe not so much.
Setting that aside though, I want to help you read and hear this story the way Jewish people hear that story – recognizing I can only do that in a limited way. This is the key story that institutes the feast of Purim, one of the happiest, most boisterous of Jewish festivals. During Purim the story is told from beginning to end twice in the course of the Sabbath, and when the name Haman is said, people respond with boos, stomping feet and horrible noise makers. So if you imagine this story as a kind of old-fashioned melodrama, you can get into the spirit of the thing. We’re not supposed to really think about “the bad guys” except as a kind of caricature or cardboard cut-out, like the black hated villain in an old western. Esther and her kinsman are “the good guys”, faithful and righteous, beautiful and brave, and we’re supposed to cheer for them and boo for Haman. This is a story of a threatened people being saved through the courage of a young queen: As Mordecai said to Esther, “Perhaps you came to royal power for just such a time as this.” This is one of the few stories in the Bible that features a female hero – and it is still an inspiration for Jewish unity and solidarity today.
It made me think about what OUR stories might be? What stories do we tell about times when we have felt threatened as a Christian people? I hear lots of stories about adult children choosing to separate from the Christian community; I hear about decisions to allow Sunday sports and Sunday shopping and the impact that has had on Christian worship; I hear stories about children being made unwelcome by judgmental stares or scowls; I hear stories about “outside forces” like secularization and diversification in religious and spiritual expression. I hear about being judged negatively due to offenses of the past and scandals of the present. We also hear stories about a War on Christmas – a supposed attack on Christian faith, and what I think is a real attack on Christmas by those who claim to be Christian, but behave in ways that are significantly lacking in compassion for the vulnerable people so much like those at the centre of the Biblical story. What stories do we tell about what threatens us, and where do we find our hope? Who brings peace to our people and safety and security to the community of Christ? Is safety and security what we’re called to, or is there another kind of peace that we are being asked to live in and share?
These are some of the questions of Advent, and I’m not going to answer them for you – at least not today. But I think there are some hints in the common ways we celebrate Advent and Christmas, and the ways Jewish people celebrate Purim.
Children at Purim dress up in costumes – the masquerade symbolizing the hidden action of God in the story. God isn’t mentioned as active once in the story, but it’s the conviction of those who brought the Bible together that God’s invisible hand is at work throughout these events. People are also encouraged to give gifts of food to friends and family, with children as third-party messengers carrying the gifts; and people are asked to help out at least two of their fellow Jews who are experiencing poverty. This feast, and this story, are about taking care of one’s people, and understanding that even when God may seem absent from a story, God is there, working through the people God chooses.
When people gather in this season; when they say “Christmas is for children” and then try to make the season special for our little ones; when they support charity after charity with gifts of clothing and food and money and toys and books and blankets and all kinds of other donations; when they invite both friends and strangers into their homes for a meal or a celebration; when they make a special effort to support those grieving or ill in this special time, we can see that this is a season of taking care of each other. This is a season of realizing how connected we are with each other. This is a season in which we see God present, behind the tinsel and the wrapping paper and the singing and even the crowded malls and parking lots. God is present, and the spirit of Christ is moving through it all, spreading hope and building relationships which may, one day, lead us to peace.
I don’t know that there are any villains to “boo” in our stories; but perhaps there are hero and heroines to celebrate. Who are yours? Who saves us, who leads us, who preserves our lives and shows us a different path? More questions to ponder for Advent. Amen.