Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Esther's Prayer: Penance

As we enter into the penitential season of Lent today, we can learn a lot about mortification and humility by studying Esther's words and actions.

When she agrees to Mordecai's plea and decides to face the king and request the lives of her people, the first thing Esther does is set herself and her attendants to a three-day fast, and she asks the rest of the Jewish community to join her. Esther realizes that fasting helps a person put God first and self last. When we deny ourselves things that are good, things that we enjoy, like food or material goods or particular types of entertainment, we say to God and to ourselves that there is something more important than our own desires, pleasures, and satisfaction. We turn away from the things of this world for a while and focus our attention on God. We make Him our priority.

Notice, too, that Esther sets herself to a very severe fast. She and her companions and the Jews will have nothing to eat or drink for three days. Nothing. That probably makes our fasts look pretty wimpy. Esther, though, knows that she is facing an extremely serious challenge, and she understands that the only way she can get through it is to set herself aside and let God take over. Her fast helps her do that.

But Esther doesn't stop with a fast. She also physically mortifies herself by removing all her queenly clothing and ornaments, covering herself with ashes and dung, and mussing her hair. Esther is sharply aware of the dangers of pride, especially in her position. She is, after all, the queen. She has power. People jump at her slightest command. She possesses all the best. But she knows that all these things are only for outward show and that if she relies on them, she will fail in her mission. So she gets rid of them. She replaces them with the most humble of clothing and even covers herself in filth to remind herself that she is nothing and can do nothing by herself. Only God can save her, and Esther is humble enough to know it.

If we pause to consider for a moment, most of us would have to admit that we are pretty concerned with our outward appearance. We want to look our best all the time because, perhaps, it helps us feel like we are in control, like we have some power to influence people...others but also ourselves. While we certainly don't need to go to extremes like Esther did, perhaps we might try this Lent not to be quite so concerned about how we look to others and a good deal more concerned about how we look to God.

Of course, Esther caps her fasting and mortification with prayer. She praises God, humbly confesses the sins of her people, remembers God's past actions, and places herself and her mission firmly in God's hands. She trustingly asks for help and courage. Then, when she has prepared with penance and prayer, she rises and calmly faces her mission, firmly believing that God is the One in control.

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