Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it. In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes. (Esther 4:1-3)
The powerful imagery of this passage in the book of Esther reminds us of the trauma inflicted upon the Jewish community under the rule of Haman and his decree against the Jews. Haman was a high official under the Persian empire and King Xerxes, who convinced the king that the Jewish community was separate and not following the laws of the land (Esther 3:8). Thus, Haman recommended to the Persian King that the Jewish people be destroyed (3:9). If Haman’s argument was not persuasive enough, he promised the king ten thousand talents of silver for the royal treasury to sweeten the deal. Xerxes acquiesced and said, “Keep the money… and do with the people as you please.”
This is the backstory of Mordecai’s appearance, where he responds with great anguish and grief. Tearing his clothes and adorning sackcloth, he joined the Jewish community in Persia in their mourning with fasting, weeping, and wailing.
We learn from the Hebrew scriptures of the powerful imagery of ashes as a symbol of mourning and loss. The covering of the head with ashes represented humiliation and self-abhorrence (2 Samuel 13:19, Jeremiah 6:26).
In the Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent and the 40 days (plus six Sundays) leading up to the anticipation of the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter. Throughout the day, you might see people who have attended traditional church services with the sign of the cross brushed across their foreheads in black soot. Why is the beginning of this Holy Season commenced with the wearing of ashes?
While the tradition of wearing ashes on the forehead didn’t begin until the Middle Ages, the early church in Rome received ashes sprinkled upon themselves to represent grief, death, and repentance for the ways we as individuals, humankind, and creation are separated and distant from God. The stories of the Old Testament that identify ashes as a symbol of such grief and humiliation would have been familiar to early Christians, many of whom were a part of the Jewish community before choosing to follow Jesus.
This short snapshot reminds us of the consequences of not treating people as equals under the law and by the rulers of the land. The Jews of the Persian empire experienced persecution and feared for their lives. Had Esther not intervened, the threats of Haman might have come to fruition with the Jewish community paying the greatest price, in this case, the genocidal wrath of Haman’s plot.
May this passage be a reminder to us this Lenten season that all people in the Middle East, regardless of their origin, race, ethnicity, or residential status, are equal in the eyes of God. Just as the Jews of Haman’s day experienced persecution and were not treated equally, there are many places throughout the Middle East where equality is not valued nor upheld. Today, Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) are not equal under Israeli law. Christians and other minority groups in some countries like Iraq in the Middle East are treated as second class citizens and are not viewed as equal to their Muslim neighbors. Women and girls in the Arab world are often marginalized and limited in their freedoms. These are just some of the ways full equality has yet to be realized in the Middle East. As we pray for peace, may we be reminded that lack of equality, often expressed in the hatred and vilification of others can extend to physical acts of violence and religious persecution.
Let us pray together this Holy Season that all people might be viewed as Equal in God’s Eyes. Amen.
Please join our prayer for equality in the comments below.