Sunday, 26 September 2021

‘Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth’

The Scroll of Esther in a synagogue in Prague … this is the only book in the Bible not to mention God’s name (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 26 September 2021

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVII)


9.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Castletown Church

11.30 a.m.: Parish Eucharist, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale

Readings: Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10, 9: 20-22; Psalm 124; Mark 9: 38-50.

The Megillah or Scroll of Esther (bottom right) in an exhibition in a synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our first reading this morning, despite its tragic background, is part of a book that creates entertaining and rowdy occasions in synagogues to this day.

But there is a more serious context to this reading, and both our first reading and our Gospel reading are serious warnings against the consequences of plotting and scheming that could destroy the innocence of children and the quality of life in wider society.

The first reading is one that creates entertaining and rowdy occasions in synagogues to this day. As the story of Esther is read at the festival of Purim, usually in March [16 to 17 March 2022], synagogues are crowded, the adults wearing their best Sabbath clothes, and the children, and some adults too, dressed up in colourful costumes, funny beards and playful masks.

Children in particular enjoy dressing up as the characters in the Book of Esther, including King Xerxes, the banished queen Vashti, Queen Esther, her cousin Mordecai and the evil, scheming Haman.

In some communities, they still burn an effigy of Haman. So for Jewish communities, Purim is like Hallowe’en, Carnival, Mardi Gras and Guy Fawkes Night ... all rolled into one, and usually focussed on children.

Purim and Hanukkah are two Jewish festivals that are not prescribed in Mosaic law. Indeed, the Megillah or Scroll of Esther is the only book in the Bible not to mention God’s name. It tells the story of the villain Haman who plots the genocide of the Jews in Persia.

Whenever his name is mentioned during the reading, everyone in the synagogue boos and hisses and stamps their feet, and they make a racket with graggers or rattles and cymbals. We have done this once before. This is the only time we get to read from the Book of Esther, so let’s do it again this morning.

The purpose of all this fun is to blot out the name of Haman. Originally, when his name was read, the congregation would shout ‘Cursed be Haman,’ or ‘May the name of the wicked rot!’

Any noise will do, and it is a mitzvah that Jewish people should eat, drink and be merry at Purim. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until they cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai’ … although opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is.

In this morning’s reading, we can tell the difference, for we have the end of the story: Haman the villain is hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai, and Mordecai is given Haman’s job.

There is no reference to God at all throughout this book. But a later tradition grew up in Judaism that Esther was protected by the Archangel Michael, whose feast day falls on Wednesday [29 September 2021].

So, why is the story of Esther so important, even though there is no reference to God in this story?

This story of Xerxes and Esther, Mordecai and Haman, is not relevant for Jews alone today. It is a story that reminds us constantly, with or without reference to God, that there are always people who plan and plot evil on a grand scale, happy to wallow in the misery and deaths of millions, men, women and children.

The fate of Haman – and of the 70,000 Persians over three days – may seem unconscionable by today’s standards. But it is not their executions, but rather the plots they planned to execute that faithful Jews are asked to recall at Purim.

During the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity, proclaimed their hidden identity to one another by having domestic shrines to Saint Esther … an insider symbol of resistance to prejudice and persecution.

On a recent visit to Berlin, I was reminded that while Haman and Hitler planned and plotted on a grand scale, there are always people who plot and plan evil and the destruction of innocence on varying scales of intensity and application.

We would be naïve to ever underestimate the capacity of people to do evil, nor ever undervalue the importance of our contribution to protecting the vulnerable, the frightened and the victimised children in our society today.

When we realise that we have been saved from disasters or from our enemies. When sorrow has been turned into gladness and mourning into a holiday, we should not only feast and celebrate among ourselves but also mark these as ‘days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor’ (Esther 9: 22).

I sometimes wonder how the story of Esther was read by Jews during the Holocaust, how they could possibly have sung the words of this morning’s Psalm:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
– let Israel now say –
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us …
– (Psalm 124: 1-3)

But during that visit to Berlin, I came across a story told by Professor Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen.

He later learned how Janusz Korczak, ‘the Good Doctor of Warsaw,’ had set up an orphanage in Warsaw. When the Nazis came, he had an opportunity to leave the children behind and escape himself. Instead, he stayed with these children on the train to Treblinka and the gas chambers.

Abandoned by the world, Janusz did not want these children to feel they had been abandoned by him too.

At Bergen-Belsen, Menachem Rosensaft’s own mother and several other Jewish women took care of the abandoned children in the concentration camp. She said, ‘We gave them all our love and whatever strength was left within us.’

Many years later, Menachem Rosensaft could write:

‘If God was at Treblinka, I want to believe that he was within Janusz Korczak as he accompanied his children to their death. I feel certain that the mystical divine spark … was within my mother as she and other women in her group rescued 149 Jewish children from almost certain death at Bergen-Belsen.’

The story of Esther is a reminder that even when God’s name is not mentioned or invoked, even when we think God is absent, God can act through the decisions of others and through the ways of the world to protect the rights of the vulnerable, the abused and the violated.

For, as the Psalmist says this morning:

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
(Psalm 124: 8)

In the Gospel reading (Mark 9: 38-50), one of the Twelve, John, complains that someone who is not part of their inner circle has been casting out evil in Christ’s name.

But did the disciples welcome him?

Did they praise him for bringing comfort to distressed people and for restoring them to a good quality of life?

Christ rebukes the disciples for attempting to stop those who challenge evil and who do good. Just as the Book of Esther makes no mention of God, we are reminded in this Gospel reading here that God can work even through those who are not followers of Christ.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘ … the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday … they should make … days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor’ (Esther 9: 22) … trinkets on sale in the Jewish Quarter in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 9: 38-50 (NRSV):

38 John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ 39 But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’

‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?’ (Mark 9: 50) … salt on café table in Cobh, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green.

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God:
Increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect of the Word:

O God,
your Son has taught us
that those who give a cup of water in his name
will not lose their reward:
open our eyes to see those who are in need,
and teach us to set no store by riches
and earthly rewards,
so that, in surrendering ourselves
to serve you in your children,
we may labour for the treasure that endures;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

All praise and thanks, O Christ,
for this sacred banquet,
in which by faith we receive you,
the memory of your passion is renewed,
our lives are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory given,
to feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.

Hymns:

372, Through all the changing scenes of life (CD 22)
553, Jesu, lover of my soul (CD 32)



Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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