We shout Alleluia, Alleluia, but all is not well.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Christos anesiti.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alethos anesti.
Millions of Christians will greet one another with these or similar words this morning. Indeed, Christ has risen. It is the most glorious day of the year! I will attend a small church of expat Christians here in Shanghai. I already have a mental list of hymns I am hoping for because everybody knows there’s no better day for hymn singing than Easter Sunday Morning. I might even wear a new sweater, just to be a little special. It is, after all, the culmination of our six-week long journey to Jerusalem, the authorities, betrayal, death, and… at long last, resurrection!
Most of us have been attentive to every nuance of the story. We know the liturgies by heart. This is, after all, our story. So we have paid attention, kept the fasts and vigils, read the passages day by day. We’ve examined ourselves and our scriptures. Most of us did everything right. We waited all night in the garden, endured each jarring step towards Golgotha, and faced the terrible abyss of Holy Saturdaywith whatever courage or resolve we could muster. You would think that we too would come out somehow resurrected.
But many will not.
There is a real anxiety in the world. Between what happens on the six o’clock news and the private anxieties that keep us awake at night, it’s no wonder that resurrection seems more ephemeral than real. It is impossibly unrealistic to think that the anxieties of this time, and of our own lives, do not affect us. Over time we become infected with a nagging sense of despair that says it’s all for nothing. It seems like God is absent.
There was a time like this for the Hebrew people too. It was a time when all seemed lost, but at the last minute, a beautiful queen managed to save them. You probably know that I am talking about the story of Purim found in the book of Esther. Our Jewish friends observed Purim just last week. It is a festive, joyous, rip-roaring good time of a feast day and it wouldn’t have been appropriate for Christians, not during Holy Week anyway. But now that we’ve gotten to this point in our own story maybe we can back up a few days and have a little Purim of our own.
As Bible stories go, the story of Purim is a little iffy. God is not mentioned in the whole megillah, or book of Esther!* Yet, it’s a deeply spiritual book for those who have eyes to see. The lesson is about God’s presence, known and unknown, seen and unseen.
One of the reasons we associate Esther with the hiddenness of God is because Esther’s name is taken from the Hebrew word that means hidden. In fact, Megillat Esther, or the Scroll of Esther, means “revealing the hidden.” So, we know from the title that we should look for the hidden hand of God in the story. Also, in The Talmud we are told that Esther is hinted at in the Torah in Deuteronomy 31:18 where God says, “I will surely hide my face from them” In Hebrew “I will surely hide” is haster aster, which has the same letters as Esther. One of the book’s chief messages, then, is that God often works in ways that are not seen, but God is working just the same. That alone should be some comfort to those of us who aren’t quite feeling the Easter joy.
Just as a recap, the story of Purim is set in Persia, about 2300 years ago. The whole book of Esther can be read in under an hour, but the actual story took about nine years to play out. It’s the story of how Mordechai and Esther heroically saved the Jews from a bad guy named Haman.
Purim is a commemoration of this story. To celebrate, the whole Megillat Esther is read in the synagogue, but this is not a solemn service at all. Members of the congregation dress up as their favorite character from the story. As the story is read we shout out joyously when we hear the name of Mordechai or Esther. When Haman is mentioned we boo, stamp our feet, or use a noise-maker called a gragger to drown out his evil name. (Haman was a descendent of Amalak, so this helps keep the commandment to blot out the name of Amalek.) During the Purim celebration we become so drunk on the joy of God that we can no longer tell “Blessed be Mordechai” from “Cursed be Haman.” (Interestingly, the numerical value of both phrases is 502, so they really are the same! Our enemies and our friends are just alike.) It is a time when we can forget that there is a great disparity between what we see and feel, and the kingdom of God for which we long.
The first Purim, though, was not much fun. It was a matter of life and death, and it seemed like God was out to lunch.
Esther had a rough start in life. She was an orphan, that’s why she was being raised by her cousin, Mordechai. Though she was made a queen, it wasn’t something she wanted. When the crises came she was very much alone in the palace, cut off from Mordecai and the people she had known before becoming queen. There was nobody for Esther to turn to for advice, nobody to help her bear the secret that she was a Jew. Her very life would be in danger if she dared approach the king without being called, yet the fate of her people was in the balance. It was a very dicey situation. I would like to say that there was an Easter moment for Esther when the glory of God was made evident to her and she turned all her troubles over to the Almighty. But there was no Easter moment for Esther. God was well and truly absent. Esther was on her own, and I know many Christians who feel pretty much the same way today.
Where is God? Why didn’t God help Esther, and why doesn’t God help us? Well, God is right here. Remember we have to look for the hidden hand of God in the story of Esther. Sometimes we have to look for the hidden hand of God in our own lives too, and sometimes it is so well hidden that we can’t find it! That does not mean, however, that it is not there.
In his recent essay on Purim, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman said that God cloaks Himself in order for us to feel want, to feel need, and to feel void. It is in this space that Esther found her true strength and destiny, and it is in this space that we can find ours.
When our backs are against the wall, as Esther’s was, or when it seems like God has simply lost interest and abandoned us, we can remember that throughout history God has ever shown only is back.* Hiddenness is part of God’s nature as much as love and mercy. During Purim we wear masks and costumes as a fun thing to do, but it also reminds us that God too wears disguises. Sometimes God looks like loneliness, or exhaustion. Sometimes God just looks like the furniture… not there at all. But, whatever disguise God wears, she is near to us, just like she was near to Esther, as near as the next breath.
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China
Image: Scroll of Esther By Daderot CC0, Royal Ontario Museum
Notes of Possible Interest
There are actually five books which are called megillah. They are Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations. But when someone says they are going to read The Megillah they usually mean the book of Esther.
Hullin 139b, Babylonian Talmud answers the question of whether or not Esther was mentioned in Torah.
You can read Rabbi Emanuel Feldman’s essay, Hide And Seek With God at Aish.com
Exodus 33 is where God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock and then reveals only his back.