This year, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Adar, the final month of the Hebrew calendar, began on the same day. Lent, as is commonly portrayed, is a season of self-flagellation, of doom and gloom. “What are you giving up for Lent?” Once upon a time, the expectation was quite severe, a regimen of rigorous fasting.
The word Adar means “strength,” and it is a month of rejoicing. A month combining elements of joy and strength could lend itself well to a message from Nehemiah. To returned exiles who were aware of their guilt, he proclaimed, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10).
With my title combining Adar and Lent, I’m suggesting there is joy in Lent—even a joy that gives us strength.
The fourteenth day of Adar is the feast of Purim, which marks the defeat of an attempt to extinguish the Jewish people. This year, Purim begins at sundown tomorrow and ends at sundown on Tuesday. [“This year,” meaning sundown on March 6 to sundown on March 7.] It is recounted in the book of Esther, the story of a woman portrayed as living in Persia in the 5th century BC. (It should be noted the book’s depiction of history is rather suspect.)
Ahaseurus (a.k.a. Xerxes) is the king. His chief minister, Haman, is a petty and spiteful man. Esther’s older cousin is Mordecai, who raises her after her parents died. Filled with self-importance, Haman expects people to bow and scrape before him. However, Mordecai fails to grant him the deference he desperately desires. Mind you, Haman is the highest-ranking member of the government.
Haman, knowing Mordecai is Jewish, devises a devilish way to make him pay for his insolence. He tells the king of “a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples” (3:8). The New Jerusalem Bible reads, “a certain unassimilated nation.”
(I’m reminded of certain characters from Star Trek: the Borg. They are cybernetic organisms linked in a hive mind referred to as the Collective. They usually appear traveling in ships looking like a giant cube. Upon encountering another vessel or planet, the message is given, “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” Apparently, Haman has a lot in common with the Borg.)
He’s casting lots (the meaning of “Purim”)—he’s rolling the dice—he’s flipping the coin to select the day for attacking and annihilating the Jews. Long story short, in a delicious reversal of fate, Haman is hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.
As noted, we are in the season of Lent. Lent focuses on reflection, repentance, and reevaluation on how we are living life. “What are you giving up for Lent?” That isn’t a question meant to result in despondent deprivation—or it shouldn’t. It is better seen as a path to freedom. What self-imposed chains do we lug around?
Although, there is something to be said for taking a fast for six and a half weeks from…whatever! A respite can help us get our mind, body, and spirit sorted out.
One of the themes of Adar deals with is identity revealed. Adar is associated with fish. Some note the zodiac sign of Pisces. Among other qualities, fish swimming underwater are hidden from sight. The ancient Israelites even tended to regard the depths with a sense of foreboding. It was the dwelling place of Leviathan, the dreaded sea monster.
The identity of fish is revealed when they come to the surface.
Another aspect of identity revealed belongs to Esther herself. She was counseled by Mordecai to keep her Jewish nationality a secret. Eventually, the king finds out who Esther really is. Consequently, when Haman’s plot is revealed—he is peeved, to put it lightly.
Robert Heidler, who is with Glory of Zion Ministries, has also commented on the revelation of identity. [The message starts at 56:00.] It is linked to the invisible world, just like those fishies down below. Who knows what’s going on in the deep, where the light struggles to travel, in a place not designed for our human eyes?
It is in that shrouded domain where our spiritual identity resides. We read in the book of Revelation, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (2:17).
To everyone who conquers sin, conquers self, conquers the world—hidden gifts emerge. We become aware of that which was there all along. If only we would dare to dive in and leave the surface behind, who can say what treasures we might find? We might realize we already have everything we need.
Yet another aspect of identity is joy. Remember, the month of Adar emphasizes it. It should be noted that joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion. It is fleeting; it is transient. It comes and goes. However, joy is a deep reality; it becomes part of who we are—even when we feel the whole world is against us. The apostle Paul speaks of joy as the fruit of the Spirit. And Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself,” so he knew a little bit about having one’s back against the wall (1:8).
It might seem counter-intuitive, but joy doesn’t always feel good. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” so says the apostle. Joy is a command. Joy asks for a choice.
In fact, Heidler goes so far as to say joylessness is a sin. That’s a bold statement! It is a refusal to enjoy God’s goodness in creation. Joy is good for your health. Remember, the joy of the Lord is your strength. Joy is life.
Going back to identity revealed, Esther is a perfect example. After Haman’s plans have become known, Mordecai says the time has come for Esther to reveal her identity. “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (4:14).
It is time for Esther to choose. The characteristics of her life put Esther in a position to use her freedom of choice.
It is time for us to choose. We have the freedom to choose, and freedom can be daunting. What we choose, or what we do not choose, actually matters.
Christine Vales has a YouTube channel she calls “Chalkboard Teaching.” She indeed uses a chalkboard on which, in many different colors, she inscribes words and phrases and scriptures and drawings! Relevant for today, she speaks on the imperatives Adar brings.
Again, referring to joy, she says the enemy is “the ultimate killjoy.” Certainly, we can think of the ultimate enemy as the devil. The devil hates joy. Laughing in a cruel manner—that gets a thumbs-up. Recall, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The devil fears the Holy Spirit. Praise confounds the enemy.
There are other enemies. Bullies can’t stand it when the object of their ire is good-natured and rejoicing. How dare they! They should be filled with terror and trembling. We can be our own enemy and fight against the upwelling power provided by joy. We become our own killjoys!
I would like to revisit the beginning of the sermon with the Hebrew calendar. We currently are in the year 5783. That is supposed to be the number of years since the creation of the world. 5784 will arrive on Rosh HaShanah (literally, “the head of the year”) which is the beginning of the Hebrew month Tishrei, which falls in September.
We are in the decade which began in 5780; this is the decade of declaration. It is represented by the letter “pe” פ, which looks like a mouth or an opening. We are urged to speak the truth, to proclaim the word of the Lord. We have to watch what we say.
Case in point: I post writings to a couple of websites: substack.com and medium.com. In January, I reflected on “Every Idle Word.” I noted, “Words have power. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds us ‘we have to give an account for every careless word [we] utter’ (12:36)… Words have power. That power can be wielded for good or ill. That power can be filled with grace or filled with reproach.” By the way, that one was also in the newspaper.
Vales observes that 5780, inaugurating the decade of declaration, fell in 2020. And we know what happened then. The wearing of masks was imposed. She says, “If you ask me, masks steal joy.” And let’s not forget, this building was declared non-essential. What we are doing right now, the worship of the Lord, was considered by the powers-that-be non-essential. We were told to close down, while places where one can buy wine and whisky were deemed to be essential.
Let’s be honest, it is difficult to speak the word of God through a mask. And the difficulty of speaking through a mask is true in more ways than one.
Addressing the happenings on social media, Vales comments on how our very words are being censored.
However, there are other kinds of masks that do not impair the ability to speak. They are worn during celebrations of Purim. They are worn during Purim parties. They are joyful affairs when people wear masks, kind of like at Halloween, to celebrate the defeat of their enemies as told in the book of Esther. Masks are worn because the miracles in Esther are not readily apparent. They seem to come through ordinary events. They are masked. Even God is masked: the name of God appears nowhere in the book, and yet God is actively at work.
God is actively at work within us and among us. Are we ready to remove the masks that hide and restrain the free movement of the Spirit of joy? Do we quench the Spirit? Do we slap a frown on the joy that yearns to rise to the surface? Can we visualize the ways we do that? And now, can we visualize the ways we allow the fire of the Spirit to melt the ice?
Joy can’t exist bottled up. By its very nature, it must be shared. Joy transforms. Let this time of Adar and Lent be one in which we take hold of joy and see what happens. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
 www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbwN4bgt7PA (message starts at 56:00)