This is my sermon for Grace Anglican Church on Esther 9:17-10:3.
The Place of the Book of Esther in the Canon of Scripture
Have you ever looked at a book in the Bible and wondered, “why is this in here?” It is true that every book contributes something unique to the Bible as a whole, but that doesn’t always explain how people discerned if a book was to be canonized or not, nor does that mean the unique contribution of a given book is always obvious to the ordinary reader.
These final paragraphs of the book of Esther are a special insight into that process. Not only does today’s final reading from Esther explain why the book was written, but it also gives us a hint of how complex the origin of Scripture can be. The book of Esther sets forth a brand new Jewish holiday: Purim, meant to commemorate the deliverance of God’s people described in the story. But unlike the other major Jewish holidays like the Day of Atonement or the Passover, Purim was not mandated by God through Scripture, but came up naturally in the life of the community. So it was actually the celebration of Purim that eventually elevated the book of Esther to the level of Sacred Scripture.
As a result, for parts of Jewish history, as well as early Christian history, the book of Esther was a subject of some controversy. For the Jews before Christ, the problem was that the book of Esther mandated a holiday that was not prescribed in the Torah – the Law of Moses. Were they going to accept this book and its accompanying holiday even though it was so “new,” and no known Prophet had authored it? Similarly, for the early Christians who no longer celebrated Purim because an even greater deliverance from an even greater enemy happened on the Cross, what was the point of keeping the book of Esther? It’s just so Jewish, almost nationalistic in tone… would it have any use in the teaching and preaching of the New Covenant Church? Obviously the answer came to be yes, but it’s worth being aware of some of those earlier questions.
The Reason for the Book of Esther
In terms of its original purpose, the whole book of Esther exists to explain the Jewish holiday of Purim, and the book itself is part of that celebration – it gets read all the way through twice. First, on the 13th day of the month Adar it is read with solemnity at the end of a day of fasting, then on the 14th of Adar it is read in a context of joyous celebration: the children dress up (almost like Halloween), families gather and give gifts of food to one another and to the poor, just as commanded at the end of the book.
The Origin of a Holiday
Most of the Jewish holidays were directly mandated by God in the five books of Moses. God dictated when, how, and why we were to fast and to feast. The reasons for this are many; here are the big three:
- Our use and perception of time is sanctified when we subject it to a religious calendar rather than to a work calendar or a school-year calendar or a fiscal-year calendar. This way, the Gospel becomes the focus of our perception of time.
- In the observation of liturgical seasons and holidays different doctrines and lessons are brought to mind, allowing us to focus on various aspects of the faith together at the same times.
- And, perhaps most importantly, faithful celebration of holidays brings us into participation with those holiday’s origins.
Remembrance as Participation
This is very important, and something we easily miss or forget: when we celebrate a holiday, take Christmas for example, we don’t just think about the past event of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but we also receive the truth and the effect of that birth, into our own hearts and lives. The word “remember” is a more powerful word than we usually use it. It doesn’t just mean to “bring to mind”, but actually to “re-member” or to “put back together.” Every faithful celebration of a religious holiday is an act of participation, or communion, with the original event.
Thus, when the Passover was commanded to be celebrated by all God’s people, the penalty for skipping it was excommunication – being cut off from the covenant community. Why? Not because of mere disobedience, but because participating in the Passover celebration was an act of union with the original Passover in Egypt; if you reject the Passover meal today, you’ve rejected the Passover then, and thus have spiritually died in Egypt. Similarly, in this age of Christ, we use similar language about Holy Communion: faithful participation in the bread and wine is participation in the sacrificial death of Christ; unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ, you have no life in you. It’s not about legalism, it’s about being a member of the Body. It’s not a remembrance in terms of what happens in your brain, it’s a remembrance in terms of what happens in your entire being.
The Origin of Purim
Anyway, that’s how the main holidays worked. Purim was different; there was no direct mandate from God to celebrate it. In this case it was an organic outgrowing of the community. After the Jews had their victory over their enemies, they quite naturally celebrated. What Mordecai and Esther did quickly thereafter (as we heard in the second half of Esther 9) was take note of those celebrations, and write decrees that the Jews should repeat those celebrations every year thereafter, adopting this celebration of Purim as part of their liturgical calendar for ever after. The people, in turn, received this decree happily, and Purim has remained a Jewish holiday to this very day. It still takes place on the 13th and 14th days of Adar, which usually lands somewhere in the month of March, shortly after we begin the season of Lent.
This, in many ways, is liturgy at its finest. A major event in the life of God’s people takes place, the people find an appropriate way to celebrate it, and the authorities that exist at the time help organize the repetition of that celebration into the future so it can be remembered for generations to come. It’s not an arbitrary intrusion into the peoples’ lives made by the religious authorities, but a mutually-agreed observance. “This event is part of who we are as a people,” they said, therefore those who came after them would enter into that story as part of their own identity thereafter.
The Christian Calendar
This is also a prototype for most Christian holidays. A couple of our major holidays – Easter and Pentecost – are actually New Covenant versions of Old Covenant holidays mandated by God (Passover and Pentecost), but every other holiday and liturgical season in the Christian calendar is “man-made.” But, like the feast of Purim, our holidays are looking back to critical events or persons in the formation of the Church and saying “this is part of what makes us who we are, therefore we must remember it.” Again, we don’t simply bring the past events of the Gospel and the lives of past Saints to mind, but we “re-member” them, those events and people live on in our midst. We are a joyful Christmas people, we are a guilty Good Friday people, we are a resurrected Easter people, we are a Spirit-filled Pentecost people, we are a people in communion with all the angels and Saints of God.
There are many Christians who don’t understand the origin and purpose of such holidays and seasons, who therefore don’t celebrate many of them, or even reject them as unnecessary or even unbiblical. What they don’t realize is: what you don’t remember, you forget! And unless the church community remembers together, the meaning of the past will become individualized. When we observe seasons and holidays together, we bind ourselves together not just with the past events and persons celebrated, but with one another in a common understanding, a common faith. For example, if you take away Advent from Christmas, if you lose all that time of quiet preparation where you focus on the return of Christ as King, then eventually Christmas loses some of the richness of its meaning too. The majesty and glory of the Christ child get overtaken by sentimentalist images and songs about what that night must have been like. This is the situation we see in many non-liturgical churches today; the more holidays and seasons are stripped away, the more superficial the remaining holidays become, and the more fuzzy many of their doctrines become as well. This is not to say that liturgical worship is a perfect fix-all for preserving the faith, but it is a strong tether that holds the Church together as one not only in the present, but also stretching back through the centuries.
The Book of Esther’s Reminder to Remember
This is, to a large extent, what the book of Esther continues to do for us today; it shows us how and why we remember the past. It’s not just a history book to inform us of events long past, although it does include that. It’s not just a parable to teach us some sort of moral or theological lesson, although it does include that too. Besides all that, the book of Esther is also a brilliant case study of how real history is recorded, celebrated, expounded, and remembered into the future. As we read the book of Esther our history, as the people of God, is brought to mind; we are brought back to one of the major events that left an impression on the very identity of God’s people; and we are showed that it is good and useful to commemorate such life-changing events and people in our past.
A Call to Worship!
As Christians, we place our liturgical focus on Jesus Christ. He is the man who is God, and everything about his earthly life is brimming with significance for us and for the whole world. Thus we would do well to commemorate his conception, his birth, his circumcision, his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, his sacrifice on the Cross, his death and burial, his resurrection, his ascension, and his gift to us of the Holy Spirit. We also do well to remember the men he called to be his Apostles, and others who played such critical roles in the Gospel story like his mother Mary, and Joseph, and Mary Magdalene, and John the Baptist. Through the lives and teachings of these New Testament Saints, Christ is revealed to us.
Two of the 39 Articles of Religion speak to this liturgical life of the Church:
XX Of the Authority of the Church
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written…
XXXIV Of the Traditions of the Church
It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.
Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.
As you can see, the tradition of the Church, at its best, is perfectly in line with the authority of Scripture: never contradicting it, and never elevating itself above it. This, too, like the final section of the book of Esther, illustrates the balance of having great respect for earthly authority while acknowledging its limits. In our Anglican tradition, the Prayer Book is at the heart of our authoritative tradition. Unlike the Bible, the Prayer Book and the liturgy can be revised. Some holidays rise in prominence over time, such as the feast day for Saint Mary Magdalene, which has in recent times been bumped up to Major Feast status. Some holidays decline in prominence over time, like when Purim and most of the rest of the Jewish holidays were discarded in favor of Christ-centered holidays, or like when the English Prayer Book was first promulgated and a huge host of old Saints Days were removed.
The goal in all of this is, as Article 34 says, that “all things be done to edifying.” When the liturgy and the calendar are robust, and we faithfully participate in them, the Body is built up and strengthened. Now, because we are a very small congregation and don’t hold very many weekday worship services to catch the 36 (or so) Major Feast Days that aren’t on Sundays, I’ve tried to make a point of including notes on the back of each bulletin about when such major feast days crop up. Some of them have had special Scripture readings provided there, and soon I’m going to make sure they all do. Please, take these bulletins home and take a look at the Scriptures for these holidays when they come up. These holidays aren’t just there for the extra-pious or the super-Anglicans, they’re there for all of us to grow as the family of God, grounding us in the reality of a history of events and persons that have made us who we are today.
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us: O come, let us adore him.
The Lord is glorious in his saints: O come, let us adore him.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God: O come, let us adore him.