By Jon Jordan
A little over a month ago I finished reading Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It is the first in a now four-book series spanning roughly five centuries and centered on the life of a cathedral in fictional Kingsbridge, England. The town — and in some ways the series — are reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s works about the fictional but entirely plausible Port William, Kentucky.
As I made my way through Pillars of the Earth, I found myself both comforted and challenged by the protagonist, Prior Phillip. In many ways I saw parallels between his work and mine, and similar parallels between his attitude and mine — good, bad, and ugly.
The book was published when I was 4, but seems to have been written for me to read at this exact moment in my life and career.
Great books tend to feel like that, don’t they?
As our time in Ruth and Esther as part of the Good Book Club draws to a close, I think we find ourselves in familiar territory:
The story of Esther was first told millennia before our time, but seems to have been written for us to read at this precise moment. Or at least at this precise moment in the Church calendar, as Lent and Easter approach as quickly as ever.
The final chapters of Esther provide us with a reminder of why we have a liturgical calendar in the first place, and a framework for approaching these seasons of subsequent fasting and feasting.
The stories of Ruth and Esther are striking. They read almost like stage plays, with dramatic turns at the end of each of their many acts.
And in the concluding chapters of these two great stories we find a postscript, of sorts.
And Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same, year by year, as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending choice portions to one another and gifts to the poor.
Mordecai’s response to the final events of the book of Esther — the dramatic and violent turning of sorrow into gladness — was the institution of a new feast within Israel’s existing annual cycle of fasting and feasting. In doing so, God’s people continued a practice that harkened back to the earliest days of their life together as a community: when something significant happens, they add it to their calendar.
There are moments in the life of Israel that played a significant role in the history of her salvation. And in those moments, God did not leave it to chance that his people would remember them properly. He did not simply hope that during their spontaneous quiet time his people might happen to stumble upon descriptions of these stories in their Bible reading and then seek to apply them to their lives.
Instead, God instructed his people to follow a calendar — year after year — that forced them to participate in these things by annually re-membering them as a community.
Creation and God’s sovereignty are really big deals. So, every Saturday God instructed his people to rest from their labor in recognition of the reality that God is in charge of the universe, and they are not. Creation and God’s sovereignty matter, so the Sabbath was placed on the calendar.
The exodus and freedom from slavery are a really big deal. So, every year God instructed his people to celebrate the Passover by re-enacting the meal and remembering God’s salvation from slavery in Egypt. The exodus matters, so the Passover was placed on the calendar.
The sacrificial system and the forgiveness of sin are really big deals. So, while repentance for sin was to be done continually, once a year God instructed his people to celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Forgiveness of sin matters, so the Day of Atonement was placed on the calendar.
We could go on, but I think the point is clear: when things really mattered, they were placed on Israel’s calendar to be remembered year after year.
This month shall be for you the beginning of months (Ex. 12).
As we turn our attention to Ash Wednesday next week, I think the closing movement of the story of Esther has at least two reminders for us.
The calendar is here for you. “The sabbath was made for man,” and so is the liturgical calendar. Allow it to be a forced re-membering of the great acts of salvation history, so that even in your busiest seasons you cannot help but imagine your story as part of the much greater story of redemption.
Seasons of fasting and feasting are linked. In God’s wisdom, sorrow is not erased, but redeemed. Our Lord “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified.” Forming a tangible link between seasons of fasting and seasons of feasting helps us to remember this reality.
Can you fast from something throughout Lent, and then spend several weeks feasting upon that same thing throughout Easter? (This practice should obviously be avoided when fasting from a vice; don’t pass on hard narcotics this Lent with an aim of feasting on them come Eastertide.)
But can you skip coffee throughout Lent, and then feast on your favorite latte throughout Easter? Can you fast from red meat and then commit to grilling a New York Strip every Sunday of Easter?
By doing so, this visceral linking of fasting and feasting may just reinforce in your mind, body, and soul the reality that there is no sorrow or situation beyond redemption.