Purim and Lent: Haman Hung, Christ Crucified
The Book of Esther relates the story of one of the greatest threats to Jewish survival in Jewish history. Haman, the prime minister of the King of Persia was determined to kill all the Jews in the empire (most Jews were then living in the Persian empire), and sent out a decree, signed by the king, which instructed the people to rise up and utterly destroy them, men, woman and children. A remarkable story which includes the king (Ahashverosh or Ahasuerus) choosing a young Jewish girl (Esther) to be his queen, and the timely undercover work of her step-father, Mordecai, leads to the happy ending: Haman is killed and the pogrom Haman had planned to destroy the Jews is reversed into a triumph of the Jews over their enemies. Mordecai is appointed prime minister in Haman’s place, and the Jews rejoice, praising G-d for their salvation. Ever since, the Jewish people have retold that story and rejoiced in that miraculous triumph every year on the holiday of Purim, which Mordecai, one of the greatest rabbis of his generation, established in chapter 9 of the book of Esther.
And Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasu-e'rus, 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. So the Jews undertook to do as they had begun, and as Mordechai had written to them. (Esther 9:20-23)
Purim has many dimensions, but above all, it is a day of ecstatic rejoicing, for the Jews experienced the Purim event as both a sign of G-d’s enduring love and a promise of their final salvation. There’s nothing in the holiday that contradicts Christian faith, and a Catholic Jew can rejoice with his people without hesitation, except for one thing: it usually falls out smack in the middle of Lent. So what should he do? Celebrate with the Jews or fast with the Church?
Commenting on the celebration of Easter and the differences between practices in the East and the West, St. Irenaeus (d. 203) wrote to Pope St. Victor I:
The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their 'day' last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers. (History of Lent by Fr. William Saunders)
At the time of St. Irenaeus, even in the Gentile Church, the Lenten Fast had not been extended as far back as Purim. Certainly the Jewish Church would not have extended Lenten practices as far back as Purim, when they would conflict with the tradition of ecstatic celebration anchored in a book of the Bible.
Jewish tradition prescribes preparing for a holiday 30 days in advance. For example, a room that is cleaned for Passover 30 days before the holiday is considered cleaned of chametz (leaven) and does not have to be checked for chametz on the day before Passover. The Catholic Jewish observance of Lent would begin 30 days before Passover, the day after Purim. It might be considered both an extension of Purim and an anticipation of Easter celebrated according to the Jewish calendar, as it was before the Council of Nicaea even by many gentiles, most famously by St. Polycarp.
Purim, the culminating holiday of the Jewish liturgical year, is a celebration of redemption, and can be seen as taking us to the very limit--the pinnacle--of Temple spirituality. The rabbis compare it to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) --that's how important the holiday is. From Purim, we move on into Lent and the anticipation of the "Third Temple" (the Temple of the Incarnate Son in Christ), and prepare ourselves for both Passover and Easter by deepening our awareness of our need for a redeemer and, of course, that awareness consists of acknowledging how far we have strayed from G-d, and how helpless we are to make our way back to Him on our own.
Purim also prepares us for Christian faith by one of the main themes of the holiday, a theme that is unique to Purim: things are not what they seem to be. In the Purim story, a sequence of events that appeared to be driven by human intension alone is revealed to be a mask for G-d’s Providence. Similarly, Jesus of Nazareth, who seems to be nothing but a man, is revealed to be the Son of G-d.
On Tisha B’av, in the Catholic Jewish celebration I described, we discover the Incarnate Son, the "Third Temple," as we rise from the despair of destruction and exile. On Purim, we discover the Incarnate Son, the Third Temple, out of the pinnacle of Temple spirituality, as an invitation to Divine Intimacy which even the triumph of Purim does not offer.
Haman hung, Christ Crucified
Both Purim and Easter celebrate a triumph over evil, but on Purim that triumph culminates in the hanging of Haman and his sons, who personify the rule of Satan. On Good Friday, it was not Satan who was hung, but the Son of G-d, who rose from the dead three days later: a different kind of triumph.
What did that triumph over evil add to the triumph of Purim?
The rabbis explain that we don’t sing the collection of Psalms recited on feast days (Hallel) because even after Haman was defeated, we remained slaves of Ahashverosh, the Persian King. Not literally slaves, but subject to his unprincipled, autocratic, self-serving rule.
Haman hated the Jews and sought to destroy them. Ahashverosh was a practical man: Why destroy the Jews when you can benefit from them? After all, they have a lot to offer, and both his queen and his prime-minister becomes Jews in the course of the Purim story, Esther, his queen, and her step-father, Mordecai, his prime minister. We can’t live with Haman, but we can live with Ahashverosh. Indeed, we can even prosper under his rule. His unprincipled, self-serving practicality means that, though we remain subject to him, he can be bribed or bought in one way or the other to keep him friendly. On Purim, we triumph over Haman. On Easter, we triumph over Ahashverosh.