8 August 2021
St Mary of the Cross
As we continue our preparation for Our Lady’s Assumption, today we turn our eyes towards another of the great feminine figures of the Old Testament, namely Esther. This young Hebrew woman was chosen to become the bride and the Queen of the King of Persia, Ahasuerus. Shortly after her promotion, the king’s chief adviser Haman, out of hatred for Mordecai the Jew who refused to pay him public honours as to a god, connives to have all the Jews in the kingdom put to death. He has the decree signed by the king and gives orders for the extermination. Mordecai informs Esther and asks her to intervene. This she is willing to do, but there is a strict law in the kingdom according to which anyone who approaches the king without being summoned by him is liable to capital punishment. Esther does not hesitate to take her life into her hands, but she does not do so without first giving herself over to prayer and fasting. She removes her royal apparel, clothes herself in garments of mourning, covers her head with ashes and dung, humbles her body with fasting, and tears her hair. When we consider the fact that she was chosen for queen precisely due to her stunning beauty, this last detail is far from insignificant. The situation is dramatic. All is lost for the Jewish people. Wicked men have decreed the extermination of their race and the destruction of their sacred rites. Knowing this is one of the situations in which human help is powerless, she humbles herself in penance and addresses to God one of those amazingly beautiful prayers which, in spite of the distance of millennia, moves us profoundly:
O my Lord, who alone art our king, help me a desolate woman, and who have no other helper but thee…. We have sinned in thy sight… Thou art just, O Lord. And now they are not content to oppress us with most hard bondage, but attributing the strength of their hands to the power of their idols. They design to change thy promises, and destroy thy inheritance, and shut the mouths of them that praise thee, and extinguish the glory of thy temple and altar, … Remember, O Lord, and shew thyself to us in the time of our tribulation, and give me boldness, O Lord, king of gods, and of all power: Give me a well ordered speech in my mouth in the presence of the lion, and turn his heart to the hatred of our enemy,… Deliver us by thy hand, and help me, who have no other helper, but thee, O Lord, who hast the knowledge of all things (Esther ch. 14).
Esther’s guardian Mordecai also prayed, and his prayer along with that of Esther has been immortalised in our chant. Esther’s prayer has come to us in the offertory chant Recordare for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, and Mordecai’s in the introit In voluntate tua for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. Whereas Esther’s prayer is rendered through a melody that conveys her trepidation before the prince upon whose word her life hangs, Mordecai’s is a calm, solemn, firm, peaceful contemplation of the omnipotent designs of Providence: O Lord, almighty king, all things are in thy power, and there is none that can resist thy will, if thou determine to save Israel. Thou hast made heaven and earth and all things that are under the span of heaven. Thou art Lord of all, and there is none that can resist thy majesty (Esther, c. 13).
Having poured out her heart before the Lord in this way for three days, Esther takes action. She dons her royal robes, recovers her dazzling beauty, and, with her two maids, presents herself before the king, her gracious and bright eyes hiding a mind full of anguish and fear. At the sight of the king, glittering with gold and precious stones, she nearly faints. The king leaps from his throne, holds her in his arms and caresses her with soothing words: Fear not Esther. The story ends with the king reversing his decision, and the death of the wicked Haman.
Numerous lessons can be drawn from this well-known account, which is the origin of the Jewish feast of Purim. The most important ones for us today, in this crucial moment of world history, is that in every age the forces of evil contrive to wipe out the name of God, the true worship of His majesty, and those who perpetuate His service on earth. There are periods in which God’s true servants seem to be on the verge of being wiped off the face of the earth. And even though one must do all in one’s power to prevent such a thing from happening, the most important is to humble oneself in penance and spend time in prolonged and fervent prayer.
The story of Esther and Mordecai ends well. The Jews are vindicated. What was intended to be their demise turns out to be their triumph. In the New Testament, however, things will be different. The Just Man par excellence, in His hour of persecution will pray, but His prayer will not be heard. The Heavens seemed to open for Esther, but for Jesus of Nazareth who cries out to be delivered from the hour of His passion, the Heavens remain closed. No deliverance comes until He breathes His last on the cross. But this Jew knew, like Aslan the Lion, the “magic deeper still which … goes back … into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned” (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, ch. 15). That magic writing, the witch could not read. It is precisely in allowing himself to be vanquished that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Lamb of God, overcomes.
The history of the New Covenant will abound with saints who walked that path with Our Blessed Saviour. The legions of martyrs who shed their blood are the first among them, and this week we will honour one of the most famous of them all, the deacon St Lawrence, who was so far from despairing as he was put to death, that in his torture he jests with his executioners. He too knew the “magic deeper still” that the Roman Prefect could not.
In reality, all the saints lived this mystery in one way or another. That astounding woman we honour today, St Mary of the Cross, is a living example of it. Leaving aside the untold hardships she had to bear with in founding her order, there was the great trial she had to undergo from the very Church she had given her life to serve.
Bishop Sheil of Adelaide, no doubt led astray by age, fatigue, and possibly mental disturbance, let himself be persuaded that Mary Mackillop was a trouble-maker, that she was widening the gaps, reinforcing the divergences, and encouraging disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division. An excessive and exalted opinion of his role led him to the ultimate, and hardly credible, decision of pronouncing upon this humble, pure, hard-working woman, the gravest of ecclesiastical censures. Surrounded by numerous priests, the bishop declared her to be excommunicate, severed from the communion of Holy Church, proscribed from her sacraments, cast out like the pagan and the infidel.
Mother Mary has happily left us with an account of how she lived that awful moment. She writes: “I felt, oh, such a love for their office, a love, a sort of reverence for the very sentence which I then knew was being in full force passed upon me. I do not know how to describe the feeling, but I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before. The sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God I shall never forget.” Nevertheless, Mother Mary saw herself forced to avoid contact with the Sisters so as to not give scandal, and to don secular dress, which cost her immensely. She wrote from the solitary place to which she had withdrawn: “I have never enjoyed so sure and certain peace of mind as of late. The majesty of God’s ways seems so beautiful… Something seemed to whisper : ‘A few years and this trying scandal will be completely obliterated from the minds of men and the case of the Church more firmly established than ever—not in Adelaide alone, but in all the colonies.’” Mary Mackillop was right. She too, like Aslan, knew the “magic deeper still”.
In his famous contemplation on the Incarnation, St Ignatius of Loyola admirably portrays the contrast between the loud, conspicuous ways of the world, and the humble, poor, silent Virgin of Nazareth. His intent is to show where the really important events take place. It was not the imposing decree and haughty show of power by King Ahasuerus, but the humble penance and prayer of Esther in her chamber; it was not the spectacular ceremony of excommunication by Bishop Sheil, but the humble self-effacement of Mary of the Cross ; it was not the empty show of Roman might, but the silent, humble prayer of a tender virgin in an unknown province of Palestine: those are the true events that change the world, the truly earth-shattering events that make our sacred history. They change it because they allow God to act in history as only He can do, through our weakness and poverty. When I am weak, then am I strong, St Paul tells us (2 Co 12:10).
And so in our day. It is not the show of might by our power-thirsty rulers who seek to constrain our freedoms and treat us as cattle to be inoculated; it is not the empty facade of the ecclesiastical establishment that seeks to label us as outmoded dinosaurs that will need to return in due time to “mainstream Catholicism”. No, there is a deeper writing in the stone, another magic they cannot read. Only those who are humble can read it. For the proud, it remains an unintelligible enigma. Esther’s people were saved by her daring prayer and sacrifice; Mother Mary was reconciled a few months later, Bishop Sheil having fallen ill and, shortly before his death, repenting of his unjust treatment of the saint.
What is left for us to do? Let us humble ourselves and pray with great fervour. Let us read the deeper magic. Both world and Church are in dire peril today. And, as St Edith Stein, another great martyr whose feast is tomorrow, wrote, as the tragedy became inevitable: “No human activity can save us, but only God”. And that is why, my dear friends, I urge each and everyone of you to consider yourself personally responsible for the salvation of the world, of the Church and its Traditions. Every faithful Catholic is guardian of Tradition, but none of them can keep it in custody. Like Aslan, it will break the flimsy bonds that today are wrapped around it to try to relegate it to the junk pile of history. This hour is the hour of the Virgin Mother, and this week we intensify our preparations for the great consecration to her next Sunday.
A final word: an important part of our preparation is to remember St Joseph to whom Mary Mackillop dedicated her order. On the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Institute, March 1891, she wrote to her Sisters: “O my Sisters, let us with great confidence turn to our glorious Patron—let us ask him to obtain for us all we need to make us humble and faithful. Unless we have the spirit of humility we shall only be Sisters of St. Joseph in name. Saint Joseph, our Father, was humble and hidden. Unless he sees in us the desire to imitate him in this, how can he recognise us as his children, how plead for us as such with his foster Son ?… Make an offering of every wrong, real or imaginary, to our glorious Patron to be presented by him to our Divine Spouse, his Foster Son, and pray that you may never remember such things again.”