Lament is holy: Biblical women and the power of honest emotion
A Reflection for Thursday of the First Week of Lent
Find today’s readings here.
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, blessed are you.
Help me, who am alone and have no help but you,
for I am taking my life in my hand.
As a child I used to hear from the books of my forefathers
that you, O LORD, always free those who are pleasing to you.
Now help me, who am alone and have no one but you,
O LORD, my God.” (Est C:14-16)
If you’ve read anything I’ve written for this series of daily reflections, you might already know that I’m pretty much always drawn to the women in Scripture. When they get to show who they are, be expressive and forge a real relationship with God, the women of the Bible endlessly fascinate me.
So writing about Esther is a treat. She has her very own book in the Old Testament. She becomes a queen. She fights for the liberation of her people, the Jewish people. But besides her deserved place in the canon of the Bible’s powerful women, the Book of Esther is interesting from a Scripture scholar’s point of view because of how it was put together.
The Book of Esther that we have today is a kind of combination of an old Hebrew version of the text and some additions from a later Greek version. The Hebrew and Greek texts are mostly very similar, but the few additions in Greek are significant enough that they have been integrated into the official version we use today. You might notice that the readings for today are cited in a way we don’t often see; while Scripture verses are usually identified with two numbers, one for the chapter and one for the verse, the first reading from Esther marks its chapter with a letter instead, the letter C. Letters are used to note the chapters that come from the Greek additions to the text.
Interestingly, in the Hebrew version of Esther, the name of God is never once mentioned. Religious themes are still central to the story, as Esther and her family’s Judaism is evident in their observances and their passion for their people’s cause, but it is only in the Greek version that Esther or anyone else mentions God by name, as she does so beautifully in her plea in today’s first reading.
Esther is expressive, and that’s beautiful to me as a reader—and it’s a reminder that maybe, to God, my lament is beautiful, too.
Esther’s lament exemplifies the through-line in the readings for today: asking God for help in a time of trouble. The psalm and the Gospel reading might be familiar reminders of this message, too.
“Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” (Ps 138:3)
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Mt 7:7)
Esther, in her grief and in her loneliness, cries out to God. She claims him as the God of her ancestors and depends on the wisdom of their tradition, having faith that this is the God she can trust when she is in need.
Lament sounds like a dark word, but biblical characters, and women like Esther especially, give it gravity and meaning for modern readers like us. It’s more than a complaint, and it’s more than a cry. It’s more than that because it’s something we don’t do alone; we do it in relationship, knowing someone is listening on the other end. We might not be able to see God or hear God, but God sees and hears us, and lament is our way of being honest with him when life is painful. Because of that, lament isn’t just therapeutic; it’s holy.
When I imagine spending time with God, I’m often picturing time spent in stillness and serenity. While I’d love to have that, and while I’ll still strive to find those moments, sometimes they’re simply too tall an order, not reflective of my experiences in an honest way. Esther reminds us that crying out and asking for what we need to get through is holy because that time, too, is time spent with God, even though it may feel difficult in the moment.
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. With God, we don’t need to edit ourselves or come with a neatly formulated and unemotional request. We just need to be honest. Esther is expressive, and that’s beautiful to me as a reader—and it’s a reminder that maybe, to God, my lament is beautiful, too.
Get to know Molly Cahill, assistant editor
What are you giving up for Lent?
Listening to podcasts and music. I recently started to notice that I'm always reaching for my headphones when I’m between tasks, walking from place to place or just finding some time to myself. During Lent, I’m hoping to replace that constant need for noise with some time in quiet prayer and reflection. (To be honest, so far it’s been really hard! And to all the podcast hosts I love keeping up with every week, I will be back for you after Easter.)
Do you cheat on Sundays?
I never knew about this practice growing up, so I don’t, though I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea.
Favorite non-meat recipe
Mushroom risotto has been my go-to meatless meal for a couple of years now. But I have to say a Friday afternoon peanut butter and jelly sandwich never did me wrong either.