By Dylan Cumberland
Happy first full day of Lent! Today is the day that Lent begins in earnest, when we begin to face the reality of the disciplines we have adopted and our covenant to spend the next 40 days in prayer. Yesterday, we were reminded of our own mortality when we had ashes imposed upon us as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. This Christian practice derives from the Jewish practice found in the Old Testament of wearing sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning for personal reasons or after a national disaster.
Today, I am reminded of an instance of wearing sackcloth and ashes found in the book of Esther. Esther is by far one of my favorite books in the Old Testament, and one of those reasons is Mordecai.
Mordecai was a father figure to Esther, adopting her when she was a young orphan. Scripture tells us that Mordecai saw the beauty of his adopted daughter and he brought her to the King of Persia, who made her his queen, the favorite out of his harem. Mordecai was highly placed in the kings court and was hated by the kings second in command, Haman, for Mordecai, a faithful Jew, would not bow down to him. Haman decided to not only kill Mordecai, but to eliminate all the Jews from the kingdom of Persia. Haman persuaded the king to give the order on the understanding that Haman himself would pay for the whole operation.
Upon hearing the news, the capital city reacted with shock, and Jews across the country began mourning and fasting, seeking deliverance from God. Mordecai dressed in sackcloth and ashes and went around the city weeping, crying out in loud and bitter cries.
We know from scripture that Mordecai would then call on Esther to use her position at court, defy the king’s law, and speak to the king without invitation, a crime punishable by death. In his plea to her, Mordecai uses my favorite phrase from the book of Esther, saying, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.” In response to this call, Esther asks for Mordecai and all the Jews in the city to fast for three days and three nights in preparation for her going before the king.
While the story of Esther is important in the Hebrew history and is honored by the holiday of Purim, I’d like for us to reflect on the actions of Mordecai. While growing up, every time I heard this story we tended to focus on Esther, which makes sense given that the book is named after her. We would talk about how important it is to serve others and to stand up for what you believe in. A pastor friend of mine ever refers to “Esther moments,” of taking a position that could get you in trouble with the masses or even place you in danger. I believe that the actions of Esther can resonate with us today, just as they have for the last 2,000 years, but I believe that the actions of Mordecai have something to say to us this Lenten season.
Mordecai responded to the news of his planned destruction, this moment of national disaster, by dressing in sackcloth and ashes and mourning in the streets. Instead of living his life as though there was nothing he could do, Mordecai disrupted his daily routine and sought to inform the masses. He wailed and cried and drew attention to his plight and finally sought help from the one he raised, the girl-queen who was placed into her position, not by him, but by the ultimate King.
While we all should strive to be like Esther, standing up for the marginalized, even in the face of dangerous opposition, we should also strive to be like Mordecai, bringing attention to the needs around us. Not just social needs, but personal needs as well. We need to disrupt our daily routine and bring to the forefront struggles we see, or struggles we are currently dealing with. We should all strive to be like Esther, but sometimes we need our own Esther. Sometimes we need to bring attention to a need so that someone else can fill it.
God didn’t place us here at such a time as this to always do the saving. Sometimes we need to be saved, and it takes a time like Lent, when we have our head bowed in prayer and penitence, to see the parts of us that need saving.