Thursday of the First Week of Lent
Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25
Psalm 137: 1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8
Women of Lent
Yesterday the queen of Sheba, today Queen Esther: the liturgy directs our gaze to these women of the Bible, that we might recognize in them the mystery of the Church, and in the Church see ourselves. The editors of the First Reading omitted, for whatever reason, the highly significant second verse of the fourteenth chapter of Esther:
She took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body, and every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair (Vg Est 4: 17).
Having given this description of Esther, the text goes on to say, “and she prayed to the Lord God of Israel” (Est 14:3).
Esther: Icon of the Lenten Church
Esther comes to us today as an icon of the Lenten Church, the penitent Church, the praying Church. We see her “prostrate upon the ground, together with her handmaids” (Vg Est 4: 17p), praying “from morning until evening”(Vg Est 4:17p): a community of women in prayer. We are reminded too of that other icon of the Lenten Church, venerated in the East as one of the patrons of Great Lent, Saint Mary of Egypt. She, like Esther, took off her splendid apparel, put on the garments of distress and mourning, utterly humbled her body, and prayed. In Esther, we see a prototype of the Church, the “utterly humbled” Body of Christ, the Bride forever associated to His priesthood of mediation. In Saint Mary of Egypt, we see an antetype, a reflection of the great feminine archetype going back to Eve and perfected in the mystery of the Church.
The Bride of Christ
In knowing herself, a woman comes to know the mystery of the Church; and in knowing and reverencing the mystery of the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ, a woman comes to know and reverence her true self. It is the gift and office of man to receive woman in the mystery of her otherness even as Christ receives and honours His bride the Church.
It is in the recognition and reception of woman — among them, Eve, Esther, the Virgin Mother Mary, and Saint Mary of Egypt — that man and, in particular, the priest, discovers himself as one called to a sacrificial love for the Church, to holiness, and to the life of repentance and prayer. This is why the liturgical calendar shines with the memory of so many holy women. Each of them says in her own voice, “Whosoever sees me sees the Church.” This is why Esther is given us today. She is an icon of the Lenten Church, praying in a body that is “utterly humbled.”
She Fled to the Lord
We learn from Esther,among other things, that prayer is flight towards and not flight from. “Esther, the queen, seized with deathly anxiety, fled to the Lord” (Est 14:1). This is the flight of the wise virgins with lighted lamps towards the bridegroom (Mt 25:6-7). In every Holy Mass, this is the flight of the Church towards Christ and with Christ towards the Father, in the Holy Spirit. “Let our hearts be lifted high! We hold them before the Lord!”
The Eucharistic Pattern of Prayer
The Responsorial Psalm is the continuation of Esther’s prayer. In the psalm, Esther’s prayer becomes eucharistic: “I give Thee thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; on the day I called for help, Thou didst answer me.” The psalm, with its movement of praise, memorial, and petition, models the Eucharistic Prayer:
Praise: “I give Thee thanks” (Ps 137:1).
Memorial: “On the day I called for help, Thou didst answer me” (Ps 138:3).
Petition: “Forsake not the work of Thy hands” (Ps 138:8).
In just a few moments, this will be the pattern of our prayer at the altar.
The Prayer of Christ
In the Gospel, the teaching of Our Lord perfects the example of Esther. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7). The Mass is the Church obeying the teaching of Jesus on prayer, or rather, it is Christ the Eternal Priest together with His Bride and Body, the Church, addressing the Father, asking Him for “good things” (Mt 7:11), and receiving the Holy Spirit (Lk 11:13).
In the Eucharist, the stewardship of Adam and Eve over the “good things” of creation is restored and wonderfully renewed. The “good things” (Mt 7:11) spoken of by Jesus are an echo of the Creator’s words in Genesis: “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
Good Things and Holy Gifts
The mission of the Church is to take up the “good things” of creation and to make them ready for the Eucharist. At the altar of the Holy Sacrifice, bread and wine mixed with water are set apart as signs of “the good things” that fill the earth. These “good things” brought to the altar by the Church for the Holy Sacrifice, are given back to her changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the mysteries of Christ’s adorable Body and precious Blood.
Father, the Hour Has Come
Queen Esther prayed, “Make Thyself known in this time of our affliction” (Est 14:12). The Eucharist is Esther’s prayer is wonderfully answered. Our Lord Jesus Christ makes Himself known in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:35), and transfigures the time of our affliction, already here and now, into the Hour of His glory. “Father, the hour has come, glorify Thy Son so that the Son may glorify Thee” (Jn 17:1).