A Call To Courage from the Book of Esther

Queen Esther, by Andrea del Castagno (1450)

In the Office of the Readings, we are currently reading from the Book of Esther. At the heart of the book is a reminder that there come moments in our lives when we must stand up and be counted whatever the cost. At such times we must confront our fears, choose sides, and act with heroic character to ensure what is right and just. If we are truly to be God’s prophets and want His Kingdom to prevail, staying silent or waiting for others to act is not an acceptable option.

As the Book opens we meet Esther, who though secretly a Jew has become queen due to her rare beauty. The Persian emperor, Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes and who reigned from 485–464 B.C.), is somewhat easily manipulated, frivolous, and distracted. He leaves much of the ruling to his prime minister, the wicked Haman. Haman takes advantage of the king’s nature to pursue a personal vendetta against the Jews by having a royal decree issued ordering their destruction. Haman’s anger had been kindled by Mordecai, Esther’s foster father, who had refused to kneel and bow before him. Informed that Mordecai was a Jew and that Jews do not comply with such customs due to their religious understandings, the furious Haman arranged the decree.

Mordecai informs Esther of this mortal danger for all Jews and the date certain for their extermination. He sends the following word to her:

Remember the days of your lowly estate … when you were brought up in my charge; for Haman, who is second to the king, has asked for our death. Invoke the Lord and speak to the king for us: save us from death.”

This is a crucial moment for Esther, a moment to decide whether to bravely confront the darkness or to hunker down and hope the storm will pass. Her decision will affect not only her own destiny but the lives and well-being of others as well.

Her first reaction is cowardly and defeatist. She says,

All the servants of the king and the people of his provinces know that any man or woman who goes to the king in the inner court without being summoned, suffers the automatic penalty of death, unless the king extends to him the golden scepter, thus sparing his life. Now as for me, I have not been summoned to the king for thirty days.

The Lord, through Mordecai, rebukes her and summons her to magnanimity and courage. He has this reply brought to her:

Do not imagine that because you are in the king’s palace, you alone of all the Jews will escape. Even if you now remain silent, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source; but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows but that it was for a time like this that you obtained the royal dignity?

Mordecai makes it clear that Esther’s own destiny is on the line. She will answer one day to God and surely perish if she does not summon courage and greatness. Why else does she think that God put her at a time and place such as this? She must decide and then accept the consequences of her decision. This is no time for fearful self-preservation or even prudential delay; it is the time for action that befits sacrificial love of others, of truth, and of justice.

The original meaning of the word encourage is “to summon to courage,” not just to make people feel better. Mordecai (whose name means “warrior”) has summoned Esther to battle.

Thanks be to God, she hears, repents of her fear, and decides that she will do what is right, whatever the cost. She sends back to Mordecai this response:

Go and assemble all the Jews who are in Susa; fast on my behalf, all of you, not eating or drinking, night or day, for three days. I and my maids will also fast in the same way. Thus prepared, I will go forth to the king, contrary to the law. If I perish, I perish!

Pay attention, fellow Catholics. We, too, are summoned to engage in a battle for the Kingdom of Light against the kingdom of darkness. We live in times of deep moral confusion and an often-fierce rejection of God. The toll of abortion is staggering in numbers. Our families and the lives of so many are being ruined by divorce, promiscuity, and pornography. Sexual confusion is rampant. Greed, gluttony, addiction, and other excesses have drained the vitality of countless people and made them slaves to their senses. In the Church as well there is sin, fearful silence, inaction by clergy of every rank, compromise with the world, and the very smoke of Satan.

If we want to know how such darkness and confusion has proliferated, we need to look honestly at ourselves as Catholics. Collectively, we have cowered in silence while Satan and worldly forces have wreaked havoc. Our pulpits have been too quiet; so too have the dining room tables of our homes.

The Lord wants the light of His truth to shine forth. Jesus, who says to us “You are the light of the world” (Mat 5:14-16), also adds that He did not light our lamp to hide it under a basket. No, He wants His light to shine. This means you! We are not a light, we are the light of the world. Christ, the Light of the World, wants to shine through us. Christ, the Word made Flesh, wants to speak through us.

In other words, as Mordecai says, we were made for times like these. The Lord put us here for this purpose: to turn back the darkness. We must decide whether to speak and shine so as to save the lives of many or to cower and hide and see the losses continue. Ultimately, we will answer to God for our decision.

The following are the lyrics to the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation.” They were taken from a longer poem written by James Russell Lowell in 1845 to protest the United States’ war with Mexico.

Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
’Twixt that darkness and the light.

Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just,
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside.
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Ancient values test our youth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet on that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.

In times like these we need more people like Esther, who chose to do what was right and confronted the evil of her time. By God’s grace, we need her courage to echo through us so that we can say with her, I will go forth … If I perish, I perish!