The book of Esther describes in brief how a young woman and her adoptive father were used by God to save His people from certain destruction. One of the main elements in the story involves Esther seeking to speak to King Ahasuerus while he is holding an audience on his throne. As Esther explains, only those who are summoned into the king’s presence at such a time may come in without fear. All others are executed…unless the king holds out his scepter to commute the sentence.
Though King Ahasuerus’s religious beliefs are not discussed in the book, there’s no reason to think he is a faithful believer in God, certainly not at this point. Nevertheless, like Nebuchadnezzar before him, God uses Ahasuerus as His own tool and implement to carry out His will. The book of Esther as a whole is about the salvation of God’s people, but the various details of the story, such as how Esther is willing to potentially sacrifice herself to save her people, are instructive all on their own.
It’s this particular scene that tells us so much about how we interact with God. Coming into the King’s presence when you do not belong there always has consequences. If coming into the presence of an earthly king without permission brings swift and immediate death, it should be no surprise that coming into the presence of the King of All Creation would bring even more severe consequences. In the book of Esther, Queen Vashti is commanded to come, but does not, and so suffers the consequences. Esther comes when not commanded, which should bring consequences as well. However, Vashti acts out of haughty pride and Esther acts out of humility. The difference in result is noteworthy.
Whereas we might be able to act under some semblance of humility before an earthly king, all things are laid bare before the King of Kings. The omniscient King of Heaven sees into the very depths of our heart and soul. He knows in the end we will always be seeking our own gain and will never give ourselves entirely to service. Coming into the presence of this King will always mean death. Those who are smart, like Isaiah in Is. 6, will recognize this and stay far away, lest they be destroyed.
This is one reason why Palm Sunday is important. Notice how Zechariah prophesies it: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you…” Palm Sunday is not about coming to see the King. Here He is coming to see you. You aren’t worthy to be in His presence, so He comes to you instead.
This idea is built up even more on Maundy Thursday. Here is Jesus among His twelve closest friends. Though He is not yet glorified, He is still King. Here He is holding court. “Mandatum,” the source of the word Maundy, is the Latin for “command.” “Do this,” Jesus says. It is not a suggestion or even an exhortation. It is a righteous command. Proud sinners who should not stand before the King on pain of death are instead the ones who humbly receive Him and they do so because His presence is the greatest gift He can give. It is the very thing all of creation has been longing for since Genesis 3.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, known for his Christian catechesis, writes in his catechetical instruction: “When thou goest to receive communion go not with thy wrists extended, nor with thy fingers separated, but placing thy left hand as a throne for thy right, which is to receive so great a King, and in the hollow of the palm receive the body of Christ, saying, Amen.”
Holy Week is a somber time, because we know what comes and why it must be. Nevertheless, Communion is rightly a celebration. It is truly eucharistic, that is, it is a time to give thanks. The words of Zechariah ring true for us every Sunday, ” Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you…”