Sackcloth and ash in a world burning to the ground
Rev. Bryan D. Jackson
February 17, 2021
What does a tale from the fifth century B.C. have in common with the 2020s? Well, based on the way things are starting out, chaos. The Book of Esther speaks to discord, irony, and femininity in crisis. And its description of a man named Mordecai leaves us with the image of grief, outrage, the tearing of clothes, and weeping and wailing.
For Christians in America, this particular Ash Wednesday might advance one of the most introspective Lenten seasons in memory. The turmoil of recent months—the pandemic, presidential impeachment, the violent expression of white supremacy—calls for a reconciliation with God that is apt to bring many into a season of meditation to which they haven’t been accustomed. Esther and Mordecai were no strangers to chaos. Considering that Mordecai had raised his young cousin, Esther, to adulthood, that he had run afoul of a ruling prefect by refusing to bow down to him, and that he was smart enough to use Esther’s apparent charming influence to save an entire race of people, it’s fair to say he ultimately handled the turbulence well.
Much of Esther is about irony. Haman is eventually hung in the gallows he had reserved for the Jews, and the chauvinistic King Ahasuerus succumbs to Esther’s diplomatic skills. Today, we experience similar irony: A xenophobic former president, who, in 2005, bragged about seizing women by their genitalia and once claimed that no one respects women more than him, is now eclipsed by the most female-filled presidential cabinet in history.
We learn in Esther 4:1 of Mordecai’s response to the decree to exterminate the Jewish people. He put on sackcloth and ashes then wept in the heart of the city. Who among us has not wept in recent months? The brutal rise of COVID-19 and the embarrassing downfall of Donald J. Trump have left our country stripped of much of its dignity and propriety. We are in desperate need of first aid. Yet, we need more than bandages and Betadine. It’s time to put on the sackcloth and ashes.
For Christians in America, this particular Ash Wednesday might advance one of the most introspective Lenten seasons in memory. The turmoil of recent months—the pandemic, presidential impeachment, the violent expression of white supremacy—calls for a reconciliation with God that is apt to bring many into a season of meditation to which they haven’t been accustomed.
Penitence is one of those Christian practices that can go unnoticed or under-exercised. “Okay, I’ve confessed my sins. What more do you want?” The reconciliation of a penitent, regarded as a sacrament in some faith traditions, is a solemn practice between penitent and God or penitent and intermediary. Regardless, it’s fair to say that the Lenten season of 2021 calls for a returning to God that is sincere and recognizable. Christians sometimes fall into the habit of being preoccupied prior to Lent with what to “give up” or “do without” for this season.
What we take on this Lent might be more important than what we choose to give up. Many Americans who profess Christianity have chosen division over unity during the past twelve months. The pandemic, with its guidelines of isolation and distancing in public, have caused great strain for many not accustomed to such limitations. Putting on the armor of love and understanding is proving far more difficult for an array of people than the Kevlar of bitterness, contempt, and lack of empathy that so many have embraced and adopted.
Ash Wednesday is a day for us to take stock of what has happened during the previous year, pray and contemplate, and consider what might be in the best interests of those around us and the world at large. Esther is described as a beautiful young woman who took action to save her people. The United States is being co-led, in a sense, by a woman who will also be making decisions for her own people. The hope is that she will live up to what is being asked of her; to pray for anything else makes one less than what we are called to be: loving and incessantly curious about the possibilities.
With the dawning of the new administration, Lady Wisdom has actively taken her role in claiming what all along has been rightfully hers. A serious, inward searching this season for what we have done wrong—and what we can do better—is imperative. We have Esther, Mordecai, and others from Scripture and history to guide us to action.
The Rev. Bryan D. Jackson is an American Baptist minister and a member of the Mount Hood Cherokees, a satellite community of the Cherokee Nation. He lives on Vashon Island, Washington and is the author of Chattahoochee Rain: A Cherokee novella.