One of the best things about the Daily Office is that it often gives us readings we wouldn’t ordinarily hear or read for ourselves. I can’t remember hearing about Esther in church maybe more than once or twice in my life and it was more a passing mention than an in-depth exposition. Still, we have the opportunity to read the whole book over the course of several days.
Esther was named Hadassah at birth, a name meaning “myrtle” or “myrtle tree,.” a symbol for righteousness. When she was taken to the harem, however, she took the name “Esther” to cover her religious identity. Esther in Hebrew means “hiddenness” but in Persian it can mean “star.” Both names give us a clue about Esther and her story.
Oftentimes a young person will leave home and become a star — a media star, sports hero, musical genius, esteemed performer or learned expert in a given field. When that prominence happens, quite often the local paper will run a feature article with a title somewhat akin to “Local Boy/Girl Makes Good.” With the story of Esther, the local girl definitely did that.
What’s a king to do when his queen refuses to honor his request for her presence at a major banquet? That was the predicament Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes) found himself in and he was not pleased. His queen Vashti had disrespected him in public and so a replacement found. The king had his minions search the kingdom for the most beautiful women and had them brought to the court so that he could choose. It was probably a terrifying experience for girls who had thought their lives would be lived out in their towns and villages with family close by. Instead, they found themselves in a harem, waiting to see if they pleased the king or not.
It’s kind of a coincidence but in today’s world, young and impressionable girls deliberately put themselves in the path of their heroes, hoping that they will catch their eye and the love story of the century will take place. That “love story of the century” encounter most often results in a one-night stand and the girl is then dismissed. That this could happen seldom if ever occurs to them, or, if it does, they don’t really care. They want the fame, the glamour and the rich lifestyle that goes along with being Mrs. Hero-of-the-Hour. It’s pretty certain, however, that Esther wasn’t like that. She had grown up sheltered and obedient to what her uncle and adopted father, Mordecai, and her teacher in the harem, Hegai, told her to do. The upshot was that Esther’s beauty and demeanor won the king’s heart and a crown as well.
Esther’s is the kind of story of which Hollywood movies were made. That plot has been used dozens of times in stories and movies and it still fascinates us. The Cinderella story is as old as the hills but it seems people still believe in it. Almost every little girl wants to be Cinderella when she grows up, and some of them never really outgrow that desire.
The plot continues with various machinations against the king, one of which is part of today’s reading. Luckily Mordecai overheard some plotting, then told Esther who told the king and the plot was foiled. Esther gave the credit to Mordecai which earned him a place in the court and a measure of trust with the king. It didn’t hurt her standing either.
Esther is a very different kind of book of the Bible. God is not mentioned directly at all and only once referred obliquely by Mordecai. It is a story of Jewish people in Persia during or just after the rest of the Jewish captives had left for home following the captivity. It gives the story behind the Jewish festival of Purim, a festival commemorating the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation by Esther’s courage. The chief adversary, Haman, is considered to be a persecutor of the Jews and, when the book of Esther is read in synagogue during Purim, whenever Haman’s name is about to be read, the assembly stomps, shouts, boos and rattles noisemakers to keep his name from being heard. Instead of just writing him out of the story, they simply cover his name with noise.
Esther had hidden her Jewish origin from Ahasuerus but, when it was necessary, she revealed it in order to try to save the lives of her people through the love the king had for her. Today, paparazzi would almost certainly ensure that any breath of scandal, possible unsuitability, or even a youthful indiscretion would be quickly found out and would be exposed to the light of day again and again as if it were the most important and, indeed, only fact that people needed to judge the character of the person being exposed whether or not it was really true or only partially so. The once-lauded headliner “Local Boy/Girl Makes Good” becomes “Local Boy/Girl Found Guilty” or some other such less-welcome front page mention in 48-point type.
Even in greatness or a seemingly transparent life, there can be a hiddenness. We’ve seen that with the death of comedian Robin Williams whose brilliant wit concealed a darkness inside that, like a black hole in space, absorbed him and cost him his life. Most people have something hidden inside that they don’t want the world to know about but, quite often, that hiddenness becomes too great to be contained and it spills out like crude oil from a ruptured pipeline, staining and ruining all it touches.
With Esther, the hiddenness was turned to good. Who knows what hiddenness in each of us could also be turned to good if need and opportunity arose? Today might be a good time to look around and see if the possibility is there and waiting. It may not save an entire nation, but it could save one life or maybe make that life more bearable for another whose hiddenness is pain and suffering.
We may never make the headlines as “Making Good,” but perhaps a hiddenness within us might be turned to something good that will benefit someone who really needs a hand. That revelation of our hiddenness may never make us a star in the conventional sense, but I’d be willing to bet there’d be an extra star or two in our crowns one day.