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Thursday, First Week of Lent

February 17, 2005

Blessed feast of the Seven Founders of the order of the Servites! (look for their story in a neighboring post)

Esther C 12, 14-16, 23-25 (Esther’s prayer for help)
Psalm 138: 1-8 “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me”
+Matthew 7:7-12 (God gives good gifts to those who ask)

Today’s theme, which ties in nicely with the devotion of the Servites, is prayer. Queen Esther models it for us and Jesus gives us further instruction on how we are to pray and what sort of answers we may expect.

Esther was in a tight spot. An orphaned Jewish exile in Persia (modern-day Iran), she discovered that she was the only person in the realm in a position to avert the wholesale slaughter of her people. Yes, she was married to the king (who was unaware of her nationality), but even the queen took her life in her hands if she approached the king unsummoned. Her people needed help and she needed help, so she sent out a plea for all the Jews in the city to fast and pray for her for three days. She then traded her royal garments for garments of distress and mourning, traded her perfumes for dirt and ashes, fasted, and cried out to God. She reminded Him of her helplessness and of His promises to His people. She acknowledged the sins of her nation which had led to this exile, but pointed out that the enemies who had been the instrument of punishment were carrying things too far by plotting the utter destruction of her people. She begged God to give her courage and to give her persuasive words in the presence of the lion (the king), that the enemies of her people might be defeated.

At the end of three days, she put her prayer into action. She made herself as attractive as possible, faced the threat of death, and approached the king. And God used her mightily, not only for the salvation of her people, but for the conversion of the Persians. “And many of the peoples of the land embraced Judaism, for they were seized with a fear of the Jews” (Esther 8:17).

I invite you to study the many lessons on prayer and marriage contained within the book of Esther. Here are just a few that tie in with the theme of the day. First, Queen Esther is a type (foreshadowing) of Mary, the Queen of Heaven and earth. Just as the Jewish exiles asked Esther to approach the king on their behalf, we ask Mary’s intercession for us. Her intercession is powerful. Not only does it bring salvation from our enemies (and remember, our real enemies aren’t flesh and blood, but rather spiritual forces of darkness–see Ephesians 6:12), but it fosters conversions too. Second, Esther didn’t take the lazy way out and just pray with her mouth. She prayed with her clothing, her discomfort, her hunger, and finally with her courageous approach to the king. She didn’t just ask, she sought and knocked as well.

What she did is what Jesus tells us to do: ask, seek, knock. The Fathers of the Church quoted in the _Catena Aurea_ are bursting with insights into today’s entire Gospel. Asking, seeking and knocking go together. If we pray without seeking or knocking, we get nowhere, for the gift of God is not bestowed on the careless. On the other hand, if we seek and knock without asking, study the Scriptures and religion without requesting God’s grace, we will never meet Him there. Rather, as one who knocks on a door also cries out with his voice, we cry out in prayer and knock with our good works and study. Then we receive the fullness of what God has to give.

In addition, this verse speaks of evangelization. Jesus has just told us not to give what is holy to dogs or to throw pearls before swine, lest they trample what is sacred underfoot and tear us to pieces. Rather, we are to pray for the godless, and our prayer will be granted. We are to seek those who are lost in their sins, and we shall find them. We are to knock at those who are shut up in errors, and God will open to them, that our word may have access to their souls.

We ask with faith, we seek with hope, we knock with love (you may recognize in faith, hope and love the three theological virtues, recommended to us in I Corinthians 13:13 as the “three that remain”). We must first ask that we may have, then seek that we may find, finally observe what we have found, that we may enter in.

In order to assure us of the goodness of God in answering our prayers, Jesus compares God with a human father, who wouldn’t give his son a stone if he asked for bread, or a snake if he asked for a fish. God is better at giving good gifts than we are. There’s a deeper meaning here, too. Bread represents the truth about God, or love. The stone, rather, is a symbol of ignorance, or the hardness of hatred. When we ask, God will give us truth and love.

The fish represents faith, the waters of Baptism, or even Christ Himself (early Christians used the fish as a symbol of Christ because the Greek word for fish, icthus, was an acrostic for the phrase, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”). The snake, rather, represents the devil, treachery or unbelief. In response to our prayer, God will give us faith, Baptism, Christ.

Luke adds a third contrast, that of a child requesting an egg; a child who will not be given a scorpion (Luke 11:12). The egg symbolizes hope, for it is the hope of a new generation for the animal. The scorpion, which stings backward, is a sign of despair. When we pray, God will give us hope. Again we come back to faith, hope and love.

Today’s Gospel passage concludes with a thought that at first glance seems to be unrelated. Jesus commands us to treat others the way we would want them to treat us. Once again, the _Catena Aurea_ ties everything together. Jesus is acknowledging that we have needs, that there are certain ways we want to be treated, and those are legitimate. It’s appropriate to bring those needs to prayer and to do what lies in our power to meet those needs. In addition, since we expect God to give us good things when we ask Him, we in turn must acknowledge the legitimate needs of others and give them good things when they ask us.

May our prayer today be enlivened with faith, hope and love, asking, seeking and knocking, and may we put our prayers into action for the salvation of souls.

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