Leavers’ Address – June 2020

An address given to the student leavers of Christ Church, Oxford
June 17th 2020 (via video)

Philippians 1: 1-11
14th June 2020

We come to the end of this strangest of terms to a Leavers service without leavers in a cathedral without a congregation. One of my favourite books in the bible is St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul is in prison and he’s writing a thank you letter to his community in Philippi, a community he’s bereft to be separated from. And so as I pondered what to say in this final address of term I thought I would write you a thank you letter in the style and manner of St Paul, using some of the text from his letter to Philippi.


Clare, servant of Christ Church and Christ Jesus,

To all the saints scattered around the country and world, together with the fellowship of Chapter and the wider community of Christ Church.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God every time I remember you. I really do.

We are separated, not by chains or imprisonment, but by nature of disease, and this means we cannot be together as we wish. How I long to be able to gather together again in this holy place for Evensong, Compline and Taize. How I long to be able to dine together in Hall, host another Brain Strain tea, and even to stand outside the JCR at midnight watching Bop come to a messy end with Angels once again.

I thank God for you.

For your perseverance and endurance under immense pressure;
For the ways you have shown love, compassion and support to one another,
For how you’ve endured hardship, especially during this time of the Pandemic.

From the first day I met you in your first Michaelmas Term, until now, being confident of this, that God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ.

Now I want you to know, my sisters and brothers, that false teachers will tell you lies about yourself, and they are sometimes so loud and pervasive they are hard to ignore.

Three of these are:

I am what I do
I am what others say about me
I am what I have

‘I am what I do’ – of course my hope is that each of you will go from here into fruitful and satisfying careers where you will take all you have learned over the years here and use it for good in our world, a world that needs innovative, creative and brilliant minds like yours. I hope that you will find where you are needed, and what it is you love, and that you will do it with all the passion and skill you can. But there may be times when what you do isn’t what you hoped or longed for.
Remember: you are not what you do.

‘I am what people say about me’ – we all love it when people say good things about us, when our friends are numerous and our social media profiles are getting positive feedback. It makes us feel good, and rightly so. But how many of us remember for far longer the hurtful comments, the essay that was slammed, the criticism from someone we thought a friend. 
Remember: you are not just what other people say about you.

‘I am what I have’ – all of us have been enormously privileged to spent time in a beautiful place like Christ Church. You have the gift of an Oxford education, friendships, experiences and memories of your time here. I hope some of these will all remain with you throughout your life. But we also feel the loss of all that we didn’t have this term: dinners, the Ball, physical farewells. St Paul says he’s learned the secret of contentment whatever the circumstances. This isn’t easy but at the heart is the knowledge that what we have isn’t who we are.
Remember: you are not just what you have.

So, if we are more than what we do, what others say about us, and what we have, what is it that we are?

Just before Jesus began his ministry, just as he was stepping out into the wilderness, he was baptised, and at his baptism he heard these words coming from above:

You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased

Mark 1.11

And these words are words I would like you to hear as well.

You are beloved. This is regardless of whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, whether you have worshipped regularly in this space during your time here, or whether you consider yourself to be not worthy of God’s love.  

You are beloved. You are beloved.

And once we know we are beloved then what we do, what people say about us, and what we have, becomes less important and has less hold over us.

The future is uncertain, particularly at this time in our history, and this can lead us to be fearful.

St Paul says:

Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ

Philippians 4.6

So not be anxious. Do not be afraid. God is with you.

I thank God for the many gifts you have given to me over the years you’ve been here.  Gifts of laughter, joy and challenge. I have learned so much from you. Thank you.

Remember, you are more than what you do, more than what others say about you, more than what you have.

You are beloved.

To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen

Newsflash: Book Coming Soon…

We have some exciting news to share. As a result of all your encouragement and positive feedback for our Lent Blog, Micah and I put together a proposal to turn the blog into a book… and we can now announce that we have a publisher!

We are delighted that BRF (Bible Reading Fellowship) have commissioned this and we are now working hard to create a stylish book on 40 women from the Old Testament, all illustrated by Micah Hayns.

The working title is Unveiled: Women of the Old Testament and the Choices They Made.

The plan is to be completed by October 2021 – we’ll keep you posted!

Clare and Micah

Gloria by Micah Hayns

And finally…

Gloria, by Micah Hayns (from the post on Miriam)

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

Jesus said to [Mary Magdalene], “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,“Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher)...’Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”'
John 20: 15-16,18

It seems fitting to end this Lent series on Easter day remembering Mary Magdalene, the very first disciple to see the risen Jesus, and the very first to proclaim the resurrection.

As this is my final post I want to thank you for joining with me this Lent, and for all your encouragement along the way. The journey began back in February with Hagar who was pushed out into the wilderness. And goodness, what a journey this has been! None of us knew back then that the whole world would also be propelled into a strange kind of wilderness. It has felt for me that these women of old have been alongside us through these strange times, and they have taught us important truths along the way.

They have reminded us of the gifts and challenges of family life (Rachel and Leah, Rebekah), of the importance of friendships (Naomi and Ruth), of not being afraid to stand up for what is right (Shiprah and Puah, the daughters of Zelophehad), of peace making (Abigail, Esther), and of the value of a deep faith (Naaman’s servant, The widow with the oil). There have been some who were hard to like (Athaliah, Jael), and some whose stories were so painful they were hard to face (Rahab, Dinah).

And Miss Lent 2020 goes to…*

I wonder if you would like to share in the comments section which of the women you most enjoyed, either because you related to them, or because they interested or surprised you in some way. I’m sure others would enjoy reading your responses; I know I would. It’s hard for me to pick an all-round favourite as I’ve loved them all, but I think I would go with Miriam. The image of her leading the women in dancing in the wilderness really spoke to me this lent.

I would like to thank the six ‘guest bloggers’ (Megan, Milly, Emma, Alannah, Matilda and Philippa) for their thoughtful responses and for the time they put into doing this. I’d also like to thank Micah for being willing to create so many of the beautiful images, and for putting up with my demands (and one point he even declared ‘Mum, I’m not a machine!’). And whilst I’m doing an Oscars-style list I’d better even thank my husband John for his proof-reading and one-liners. He’s very much enjoyed that he gained a small fan base!!

I’m going to take a break for a while but my plan is to do something similar for Lent next year, perhaps with women from the New Testament and the early Church.

Prayer

When Hagar was in the wilderness she was met by an angel who told her that she was seen and heard by God. Centuries later Mary Magdalene was seen by the risen Jesus in the garden. I pray this Easter that you too would know what it is to be seen and heard by God, and that you too would experience the light, love and life of the risen Christ.

O Lord God, our Father. You are the light that can never be put out; and now you give us a light that shall drive away all darkness. You are love without coldness, and you have given us such warmth in our hearts that we can love all when we meet. You are the life that defies death and you have opened for us the way that leads to eternal life. None of us is a great Christian; we are all humble and ordinary. But your grace is enough of us. Arouse in us that small degree of joy and thankfulness of which we are capable, to the timid faith which we can muster, to the cautious obedience which we cannot refuse, and thus to the wholeness of life which you have prepared for all of us through the death and resurrection of your Son. Do not allow any of us to remain apathetic or indifferent to the wondrous glory of Easter, but let the light of our risen Lord reach every corner of our dull hearts. Amen
(Karl Barth, 1886-1968)

*This was of course from John!

The Woman of Shunem: She Held her Son

Elisha raises son of the woman of Shunem, Benjamin West, 1765 (part of)

We come to our final woman of the Lent 2020 series on this Good Friday and you will see why I have chosen to remember her on this day when we remember Jesus’ death on the cross.

We are now very used to our women being unnamed, but usually these are poor or seemingly unimportant. Our final woman was ‘well to do’ and actually rather wealthy, and she was a friend to the prophet Elisha, but for some reason none of the household are named.

The woman lived in a spacious house with her husband in the town of Shunem (where Abishag came from). She was a keen host and enjoyed providing food for the elderly prophet Elisah and his servant Gehazi whenever they passed through the town:

So whenever he passed that way, he would stop there for a meal.

2 Kings 4.8

After a while she decided it would be sensible if Elisha stayed overnight rather than having to travel to his home after dinner. She was clearly a woman with an eye for detail and she prepares a room for him at the top of the house:

Let us make a small roof chamber with walls, and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us.

2 Kings 4.10

Elisha and Gehazi want to thank her for her hospitality and so have a conversation about what they might offer her. She declines saying she has all she needs, “I have a home among my own people”

For her, that is blessing enough.

The men decide that as she is childless and ‘her husband is old’ then she can’t really be satisfied until she has a son. They tell her that by next year she would be pregnant, and she is.

The child grew and one day whilst out with his father in the fields he becomes seriously ill:

He said to his father, “My head! My head!” His father told a servant, “Carry him to his mother.” After the servant had lifted him up and carried him to his mother, the boy sat on her lap until noon, and then he died.

2 Kings 4. 19

What a tragedy for her. The woman acts quickly. She takes the child upstairs to Elisha’s room, shuts the door and then prepares the donkey to go travel to see the prophet, who is at Mount Carmel, a day’s journey away. Elisha spots her and sends Gehazi to meet her to find out what’s wrong, ‘Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is the child all right?’.

She doesn’t want to speak to Gehazi, but to Elisha and, although the servant tries to keep her away, she pushes forward. Her reaction seems to be anger:

Did I ask you for a son my Lord? Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes?” 

2 Kings 4.28

Perhaps she felt she was worse off now than she was before she had a child. Alfred Lord Tennyson said ’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’, but in these early moments of grief it didn’t feel like it to her.

Elisha and Gehazi go with the woman to her home and Elisha went upstairs to see the dead boy. He prayed to the Lord. 

Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. 

2 Kings 4.34

The boy returned to life and was given back to his mother, who fell to the ground in worship and thankfulness.

Reflection

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, 
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” 
When he had said this, he breathed his last.
Luke 23.44-46
Pieta made by Michelangelo in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome

Today is Good Friday and we remember Jesus’ final hours where he was beaten, humiliated and crucified. In his death, Jesus took onto himself all the pain, suffering and sin that is in the world. We also remember Jesus’ mother Mary, who was with him until his final breath, and who held his dead, lifeless body in her arms, just as the Women of Shunem had done many years before.

Before we get to the joy of the resurrection on Easter, perhaps we could spend a bit of time today reflecting on the grief that is around us. I don’t know about you but I find it hard to stay with the pain of Good Friday and my natural inclination is to move towards the joy and hope that is to come.

But let’s stay here for a while, and let us remember all those who are grieving today. Those who’s loved ones have died, those who have been unable to hold dying relatives in their arms in their final hours, mothers who have had to witness the death of their children, all those known to us who are suffering, and who might also be wondering if the love they had was worth the pain of the grief.

Let us place all our prayers at the foot of the cross, in the hope of the resurrection and new life.

Prayer

Eternal God,
in the cross of Jesus
we see the cost of sin
and the depth of your love:
in humble hope and fear
may we place at his feet
all that we have and all that we are,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A Collect for Good Friday from Church of England Common Worship

The Widow and Elisha: Oil’s Well that Ends Well*

2 Kings 4.1-7

For the last two days of our Lenten journey we go back to the time of the Kings and to just before we met Naaman’s servant girl. We will reflect on two women who reach out to God through the prophet Elisha, and both of their stories are told within the same chapter of 2 Kings.

Our first woman is only known as ‘the widow with the oil’ and her husband, who had been part of a group of prophets, had recently died. She was left with the household and children to care for; she was also left with his debts. It wasn’t long before one of the creditors came for their money and, as the widow had none, demanded that the woman give him the only thing she had left: her two sons, to work for him as slaves. Alongside the tragedy of losing her sons this would also mean she would have had no hope for economic survival.

The women reached out in desperation to the prophet Elisha. He asks her what she has already:

‘Tell me, what do you have in your house’

2 Kings 4.2

She tells him that she has nothing at all, ‘except a little oil’.

Elisha tells the woman to go to her neighbours for help. She wasn’t to ask for food or money which might have been one solution. She is to ask them for empty jars. Not a few empty jars, but loads of them.

She does what is requested, gathering as many jars as she can.

‘Go inside and shut the door behind you and you sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side’

2 Kings 4.4

She takes the little oil she has and, with the help of her children, she pours it into the jars: the oil flows until every single jar is full. There is abundant oil, enough to sell to pay off her debts, and to live off the remainder.

Reflection

You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; 
therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness
Hebrews 1.9 

Oil was a precious commodity in those days. It was necessary for the provision of food, but it has also been used for centuries in Judeo/Christian worship to symbolise holiness and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Moses spoke of oil mixed with spices and burned as incense ‘as a memorial on the altar, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD’ (Leviticus 2.2). Oil was used to make a particular place holy, and it is still used in Christian worship at baptism and at the ordination of priests.

Today is Maundy Thursday and traditionally all the clergy gather at cathedrals for a special service that includes a ‘blessing of oils’. During the service clergy remember their vows and receive oils to use in services throughout the year. This year the services will be live streamed, and we will have to remember that the Holy Spirit is not confined to bottle or to a building!

It is easy to focus on all the things we don’t have at the moment: we miss our families and friends; some of us will miss going to a Maundy Thursday service with the washing of the feet and the stripping of the altar; those on their own might yearn for physical contact; and many of us are struggling financially. Perhaps we feel exhausted and depleted like those empty jars.

Elisha encouraged the widow to look inwards to see what she already had. She had a little oil and that could be used. What do we have right here and now? There will be something to be thankful for. And perhaps we could pray for the Holy Spirit to be present with us, that we would be filled, like those empty jars, to overflowing, and that we would know God’s abundant blessing.

Prayer

This prayer is often sung during confirmation and ordination services – you can listen to a version here whilst you pray

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
and lighten with celestial fire;
thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love;
enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our mortal sight.

* I was asked yesterday for more of my husband’s one-liners, so he was given free rein with the subtitle today!

Shallum’s Daughters: Wall Builders

A girl praying at the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall), in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is the only remaining section of the temple wall
still standing from this period.

Nehemiah 3.12

We are nearing the end of our series of women from the Hebrew bible and today’s women come at the chronological conclusion of the forty posts as the final posts will be going backwards in time to reflect on women who might be able to help us connect with the Easter story.

Today’s women share only one single verse in the bible and seem rather inconsequential compared with the women we’ve been reflecting on recently; yet they were part of something far bigger and therefore deserve a day to themselves.

Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section [of the wall] with the help of his daughters.

Nehemiah 3.12

When the Babylonians invaded Judah in c.587BCE (2 Chronicles 36.15-21), they destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple (built by Solomon) and the city walls. At this point in our story, the Jewish people had been in exile for around 70 years.

The Jews were allowed to return home to Jerusalem by King Cyrus and they were given permission to rebuild the temple (Ezra) and restore their damaged homes. The people were vulnerable to attack as the city walls were damaged and so God called Nehemiah to oversee the restoration. The book of Nehemiah is essentially a historical account of the rebuilding of the city walls:

Rebuilding the Wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come let us rebuild the wall.  

Nehemiah 2.17

And within the book there is an entire chapter (3) which consists of a long list of names of all those who rebuilt a section of the wall. It’s not the most riveting part of scripture I have to say, but it shows that each and every person named was important and had a role to play:

And so it continues…

The men of Jericho built the adjoining section, and Zakkur son of Imri built next to them. The Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. 

Nehemiah 3.2

The daughters of Shallum are the only women named in the rebuilding work. I find it intriguing to wonder what their role was. How exactly did they help their father? Perhaps they financed the work, or brought food and drink to the labourers? Or did they do actual hard labour, carrying stones, placing beams, hoisting doors and shovelling rubble?

Whatever their exact role involved, they were part of the working party who finished the wall in only 52 days, enabling the Jewish families to return home (chapter 7) to live and worship in safety.

Reflection and Prayer

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 
But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 
John 2.19-20

The daughters of Shallum helped to build the walls in Jerusalem that were still standing during Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem. He may even have ridden through the gate they built when he arrived on the colt. Or perhaps he passed their section of the wall when he was being dragged towards the cross on his final journey.

I thought it was important to include them in this blog because it’s good to remember those who just get on with the task in hand, without fuss and ceremony, and often without being given any accolades for what they do.

During this curious time of Covid-19 it can feel that our world is crumbling around us and structures that we thought of as strong and solid turn out to be weaker that we ever imagined. When things are crumbling we can really appreciate the multitude of people performing every day tasks that keep us secure and enable us to function. Let us pray for hospital porters, cleaners, catering staff, nursing assistants and all those who keep our nursing homes and hospices running smoothy.

And let us remember that Jesus’ body (which he compared to the temple), although utterly broken and destroyed, was indeed raised in three days. And like the daughters of Shallum each one of us is called to play our own little part in the rebuilding work of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that can never be destroyed and will last forever.

Behold our lives, our faculties, our wills: we have given them all to You. We are Yours; dispose of us according to your will. We see well enough, O Lord, how little we can do. But now having drawn near to You, having ascended this watchtower from which Your truth can be seen,
and while You depart not from us, we can do all things. Amen
(A prayer of Teresa of Avila)

Esther: For Such a Time as This

Esther by ©Micah Hayns

The Book of Esther

Yesterday’s post ended with the deposition of Queen Vashti for her disobedience to the King Ahasureus’ demands. This opened the way for one of the great heroines of the Hebrew Scriptures and a story that is told each year during the festival of Purim. It is the story of Esther, the woman who saved her people from extermination.

Esther was very different to the aristocratic Vashti. She was an orphan and so had been brought up by her uncle Mordecai, and she was Jewish. This was at a time when the Jews were still in exile but they were able to live in relative peace under the authority of the Persian rulers.

The king had sent out his servants to find a suitable replacement wife and so beautiful young women from around the land were taken to the palace to join the harem under the watchful eye of Hegai, the king’s eunuch. Esther, being ‘fair and beautiful’ was one of them. She quickly became one of the favoured women.

Those of us who enjoy the odd beauty treatment might like to pause to reflect at the description of the process whereby these women were prepared for their ‘audience’ with the king:

Their cosmetic treatment [was] six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women.

Esther 2.12

A whole year of beauty treatments!

Esther pleased the king and he ‘loved her more than all the other women’ and so he ‘set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti’. There was a banquet and national holiday in her honour, and the king distributed gifts around his kingdom in celebration.

She had a secret however: she didn’t tell anyone that she was Jewish. She continued to keep in touch with her uncle Mordecai, who spent his time sitting at the king’s gate, perhaps so he could hear news of his adoptive daughter. One day Mordecai foiled a plot against the king by overhearing rumours of rebellion: he informed Esther who told the king and the rebels were hanged.

Esther and Mordecai by Arent de Gelder, circa 1685

If this was a fairy tale and Queen Esther was the beautiful princess, then the evil villain now comes on the scene: Haman. He was promoted by the king to be his ‘first official’ and is given authority over all other public servants. A vain and arrogant man, Haman demanded everyone pay him homage on bended knee. Mordecai refused to bow. Haman is furious and used this slight as an excuse for his anti-Semitism and he determined to ‘destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom’. (Esther 3.6).

Haman erects a vast gallows to carry out his murderous plan, the king passively agrees to his proposal, and the city is ‘thrown into confusion’ as edicts to kill the Jewish people are sent out.

Queen Esther is deeply distressed. Mordecai asks her to intercede with the king for their salvation and tells her that she has been put into the palace ‘at such a time as this’ for the purpose of helping her people.

But Esther realised it wasn’t going to be simple. She would have remembered what happened to Vashti. She would need to tread carefully.

She takes control of the situation, first asking all Jews to fast (and, we assume, pray) for three days. She then goes to the king and asks him if she can host a banquet for him and Haman. The king is delighted and offers her anything she desires, but she holds back and hosts a second party the next day. At the second banquet Esther makes her request, and by this stage the king is fully on her side, particularly as during the night he had had a dream where he remembered the loyalty of Mordecai who had warned him of the assassination threat.

Esther’s request is bold. She discloses her background and tells the king of the ensuing massacre:

let my life be given me… and the lives of my people, that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed 

Esther 7.3-4

The king’s eyes are opened to what is being done is his name, and the wicked Haman is killed on his own gallows, and the Jewish people are saved. In a final twist to the tale, Mordecai is given Haman’s position in the palace and Esther and her uncle are given his house and household.

for the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honour…a festival and a holiday

Esther 8.17

The festival of Purim was instituted and every year Queen Esther continues to be remembered for her part in the salvation of the Jewish people.

Reflection and Prayer

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives..he knelt down and prayed, 
'Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; 
yet, not my will but yours be done'
Luke 22.42 

Before taking any action Esther’s first instinct was to insist all her people spent three days in prayer and fasting. This week is Holy Week and today we remember Jesus in Gethsemane before his arrest where he spent time in prayer grappling with his Father as to whether this journey was really his to take.

There is a wonderful line in Esther’s story where Mordecai tells her that perhaps she had been placed in the palace at that particular time for a particular purpose that only she could fulfil. ‘Who Knows?’, he says, ‘perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this’.

For such a time as this

I wonder if Jesus thought of Esther as he pleaded with his Father in Gethsemane? I wonder if he recalled her courage to face the king when he was being dragged in front of Pilate? I wonder if he found himself realising that he too had been chosen ‘for such a time as this’.

O Lord, who when thine hour was near, didst go without fear among those who sought thy life; give us such boldness to confess thee before others, and such readiness to bear thy cross, that hereafter thou mayest confess us before thy Father which is in heaven. Amen
A prayer of Joseph Oldham, 1874-1969

Queen Vashti: #MeToo

Queen Vashti by Micah Hayns

Esther 1

In October 2017 American actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote #MeToo as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. This was in response to allegations relating to renowned film producer Harvey Weinstein, who was recently sentenced to 23 years in prison. The #MeToo became a global movement in a matter of days opening up an important conversation about women’s experiences, particularly in industries such as film and theatre.

The story of Queen Vashti is perhaps one of the earliest accounts of a woman standing up to a powerful man.

Vashti was the Queen of Persia, the first wife of powerful King Ahasuerus (Xerxes 1), and her story is told within the Book of Esther (which is named after another fabulous woman who we will look at tomorrow), during the days of Jewish captivity in Babylon.

For the Persian rulers it was a time of peace and prosperity which meant that there was plenty of time for the king to display the glory of his kingdom. King Ahasuerus was certainly a dedicated host. One of his parties, which gathered together officials, nobles and governors from across the kingdom, lasted nearly six months!

Vashti’s story begins with one such banquet, one that is so lavish that there were couches made from gold and silver, drinks were served in golden goblets, and the wine was so plentiful that:

by the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.

Esther 1.8

It was a party that Weinstein and his Hollywood crowd would have approved of!

At that time the men and women of the royal palace lived largely separate lives, and Queen Vashti had her own quarters. Whilst the king celebrated she hosted her own banquet for the women of the kingdom.

After seven days of revelry, and when the king was ‘in high spirits from wine’ he sent his seven eunuchs to bring Queen Vashti to the men’s banquet. He demanded she be brought to their party and displayed:

wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty.

Esther 1.11

Some theologians argue that this meant the king demanded she should wear nothing at all but her crown! It’s not clear if this is the case, but Queen Vashti was clearly distressed by the command.

She says no!

Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.

Esther 1.12

What a risk to take! The king was furious and ‘anger burned within him’. He had wanted to impress his party by showing how beautiful his wife was; and instead she had humiliated him publicly.

Vashti Deposed by Ernest Normand, 1859

He wanted revenge. And so, like Henry VIII, Weinstein and countless other despots since, he worked out a way to bring her down. He consulted his sages and lawyers and they found a by-law which said he could depose her as Queen because she has been disobedient to the king.

The nobles wanted to punish her to ensure the obedience of all their wives:

For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands…. there will be no end of contempt and wrath.

Esther 1.17,18

The Queen was deposed and a letter was sent throughout the whole land to every province, in every local language, with the decree that:

every man should be master in his own house.

Esther 1.22

We hear no more of Vashti and she is replaced by a young Jewish woman, Esther, who we will hear about tomorrow.

Reflection and Prayer

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this series is discovering how the stories of the women from Old Testament are at the same time ancient but also very modern and relevant to us today.

Queen Vashti said ‘no’ to the king at considerable cost to own life. We don’t get to hear why she did this. Some have argued that it was because of modesty (Midrash), others that she was unhappy with her appearance that day (Babylonian Talmud), and still others that she was a proto-feminist fighting for her integrity. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1878) says that her action was the ‘first stand for women’s rights’ (1).

Whatever the reason, she was certainly bold and you might be interested to hear that there is even an #IamVashti campaign which was started by feminist Jewish theologian Meredith Jacobs – you can read her excellent article here.

The Book of Esther is curious because it is the only book of the bible which doesn’t mention God, an odd choice perhaps as we begin Holy Week!

Let us pray for all those who continue to be exploited by the powerful, for all those who have the courage to stand up to power, and for ourselves, that we would use our own power well.

Lord Jesus, who hears the voices of the powerless,
and gives strength to those who speak up:
create safety for stories to emerge,
embolden our community to examine itself,
shine your light on abusive power, and
help us commit to holiness in every relationship,
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen

  1. https://time.com/4269357/queen-vashti-feminist-history/

Judith: The Mata Hari of the Second Century BC

Strozzi, Bernardo; Judith with the Head of Holofernes; Christ Church, University of Oxford; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/judith-with-the-head-of-holofernes-229201

Guest post by The Revd Philippa Judith White, Succentor of Christ Church Cathedral

If you are familiar with the more esoteric reaches of the Revised Common Lectionary – esoteric enough in and of itself – you will know that, every so often, it sends us to read the Apocrypha: the set of books written after the Old Testament proper, but read as Scripture by Jews and many Christians. And, if you’re among the seventeen people (and the odd dog) who do follow the Morning Prayer lectionary, then every three years, in October, you’ll read edited highlights of the story of Judith, told in the Apocrypha in the book that bears her name.

For the rest of the world, the story of Judith is well worth seeking out. It’s a war story – and like the best war films, it focuses on a small human drama that puts the whole ghastly gigantic conflict into a human scale that we can comprehend.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria, is waging war upon the whole world. He sends his best general, Holofernes, to conquer Israel. Holofernes starts with a border city, Bethulia. He uses tactics that have worked before: he besieges them. And sure enough, before long the city leaders are ready to surrender.

Not, however, if Judith has anything to do with it. She isn’t introduced until chapter 8 of her own book, but she comes in like a whirlwind. After a brief introduction in which we learn she’s a wealthy and beautiful widow, she’s straight into action. She summons the city elders and tells them off. How dare they consider surrendering? What on earth were they thinking? They are sheepish. They ask her to pray for rain, so that they can hold out under siege for longer. And Judith laughs: she’s going to do better than that.

Then Judith said to them, ‘Listen to me. I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants. Stand at the town gate tonight so that I may go out with my maid; and within the days after which you have promised to surrender the town to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand. 

Judith 8: 32-34

The story leaves the elders at the town gate and follows Judith out to the enemy’s camp. She has taken off her mourning clothes; she’s dressed to the nines, and she’s stunning. She gets herself picked up by enemy patrols and sweet-talks her way to Holofernes the general, to whom she introduces herself as a deserter willing to turn her city over to him. On one condition: that she’s allowed out of the camp each evening to pray, and that she doesn’t eat his food – she’s keeping kosher and she’s brought her own, in a bag that her maid is looking after. Holofernes, smitten, falls for it. He agrees to everything; lets her get him drunk; and summons her back a couple of nights later with one thing on his mind.

Judith arrives. She’s set it all up perfectly. Holofernes sends all his guards out and the two of them are alone. She drinks him under the table and, when he passes out, beheads him. The guards are expecting her to go out of the camp with her bag of food; so they don’t stop her. And she just keeps going, back to Bethulia, back to the elders, where she opens her bag – and there’s the head of Holofernes.

When the enemies find out in the morning what has happened, they panic and flee. Israel is saved. Judith leads the city in a song of praise and lives to the age of 105 – freeing her maid, refusing all suitors, prosperous, wise and universally respected.

Reflection

Judith is my middle name, named after a very dear godmother. So I was always going to like the story of the biblical Judith. I don’t remember when I first heard it, or even whether I read it for myself; but Judith the clever, the resourceful, the faithful, the beautiful, has always been one of my heroes and I’ve always been pleased to have her name.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to appreciate different facets of Judith’s character. The astonishing courage of her actions – the way she risked not just her life, but her body. The mutual trust between her and her unnamed maid. The quiet courage she had shown before this moment, calmly managing her late husband’s estates and businesses, respected by everyone at a time when women – especially women acting in ways that women didn’t usually act – were not automatically treated as worthy of respect. Her willingness to position herself in a place that wasn’t just vulnerable, but that laid itself open to misinterpretation. She knew she wasn’t planning to sleep with Holofernes or to betray her city, her friends, her nation or her God – but anyone watching would have been forgiven for thinking she might. Judith doesn’t care how she’s perceived – she only cares about doing the right thing, the thing to which God is calling her. And, paradoxically, because of this she is rightly perceived as wise and holy.

Judith is not only a woman, she’s a childless widow. Feminist readings highlight this as a particularly vulnerable position – and they’re correct. But Judith is also wealthy, having inherited her husband’s estates and businesses. With means, and with the intellect to manage them, she is far less vulnerable than many people. So Judith – like many of us – occupies a paradoxical position: in some ways vulnerable, in other ways privileged. And she responds to this paradoxical position not by emphasising the ways that she’s vulnerable, nor by claiming her privilege, but by using her position and the resources at her disposal – wealth, beauty, wisdom – for the good of her city and her nation. Perhaps this can make her a particularly good example for those of us who are privileged in some ways and vulnerable for others; or for those of us trying to work out what it means to respond to God’s call in the changed circumstances around us.

Before she leaves Bethulia for the enemy camp, Judith prays. Let’s conclude with the words of her prayer:

For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, saviour of those without hope. Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of all your creation, hear my prayer!

Judith 9: 11-12

Prayer

God of the broken, strength of the vulnerable, we give you thanks that throughout history, you have called women and men to unite with you in helping the oppressed, upholding the weak, protecting the forsaken, saving the hopeless. God of the poor, friend of the weak, give us your compassion and inspire us with your love. Teach us, like Judith, to defend and protect those in need; to challenge injustice; and to work for healing in your world. Amen

Huldah: The Unknown Prophet

This image is actually of Deborah, but works as well for Huldah
Deborah portrayed in Gustave Doré’s illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours (1865)

2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34

I confess I had never heard of Huldah before and yet she is one of the seven female prophets in Jewish tradition.*

Huldah had the ear of kings and rulers and spoke with authority about the Jewish Law, and yet unlike most other biblical prophets we hear nothing about her family history, journey of faith, or personality. The frustrating thing is we get to learn more about her husband’s genealogy than hers, and he does nothing of any consequence.

Huldah, (her name means weasel which is unfortunate!) was a prophetess from Judah at the time when King Josiah was on the throne. She lived in Jerusalem with her husband Shallum, who had the enigmatic job title, ‘keeper of the wardrobe’.**

You will remember from yesterday’s post about Queen Athaliah that this period of history was one of a seemingly endless cycle of corrupt and cruel rulers of the divided nations of Israel and Judah. During this period of around sixty years the temple in Jerusalem had been allowed to fall into ruin, the people turned to idolatry, and the laws and statutes given to Moses had been largely forgotten.

King Josiah was one of the few kings who ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’. (2 Kings 22.2). He became king when he was only eight year old and he ruled with justice and equity, ensuring those who worked on the restoration of the temple were being paid and that all the temple funds were accounted for properly.

Whilst the building work to restore the temple was taking place one of the workers found an old copy of ‘the Book of the Law’ in the rubble. This would have been a collection of rolls of parchment containing sections of the Torah. This was read aloud to the king who was convicted by what he heard realising with horror how far they had moved from the Lord’s will:

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes

2 Kings 22.11

He wanted to understand what he was hearing and so he sent his high priest (Hilkiah) and scribe (Shaphan) to ask Huldah the Prophetess for guidance. She speaks with authority, clarity and boldness, and speaks to them of God’s judgment towards the people:

Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and provoked me to anger by all the idols they have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.

2 Kings 22.17

She then tells them that God had seen and heard Josiah’s repentance on receiving the Law:

Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord…because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you.

2 Kings 22.18

God used Hulda’s prophetic voice to promise King Josiah protection and peace. The king responded by restoring God’s word to temple worship, renewing their vows to obey God’s law, and bringing back long forgotten Jewish festivals such as Passover. Alongside this he destroyed all the idols and shrines, sacked all the pagan priests and mediums, and pulled down the altars to Baal.

Neither before or after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did – with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with the Law of Moses. 

2 Kings 23.25

And this remarkable transformation came about through the words of a female prophet who very few have ever heard of… Huldah.

* the others are Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail and Esther
** the job probably involved looking after the robes of the priests, rather like a verger would in our churches today.

Reflection and Prayer

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity,
 to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 
Ephesians 4.11-13

What is remarkable about this story is that King Josiah clearly had other learned temple priests and scribes he could call upon, and yet none of them were able to interpret scripture and explain the Book of the Law in the way that Huldah could. If her husband worked in the temple then perhaps she had developed a ministry of her own amongst temple worshippers, and had become well known for her wisdom.

As we learn of Huldah’s gifts for prophetic teaching perhaps we can give thanks for all those women and men who have opened up scripture to us and have taught us something of God’s word. I’ve been thinking a great deal about my clergy colleagues recently. So many of them are doing a wonderful job speaking of God’s love to a world that is anxious and uncertain at the moment. The temple in Huldah’s time had fallen into disrepair and the people had forgotten their traditions. Our church buildings may well be closed for a time, but the Church is certainly alive and well!

Lord Jesus, merciful and patient, grant us grace
ever to teach in a teachable spirit;
learning along with those we teach,
and learning from them when it pleases you.
Word of God, speak to us, speak by us, what you will.
Wisdom of truth, instruct us, instruct by us, if and whom you will.
Eternal truth, reveal yourself to us, reveal yourself by us,
in whatsoever measure you will;
that we and they may all be taught of God. Amen

A prayer for teachers by Christina Rossetti (1830-94)