Final chapter in our series on the artwork in the arch over the altar of sacrifice.
In chapters 1 and 2, we learned about the two characters on the left of the arch. In the last chapter we learned the story of Balaam, who appears on the right side of the arch. To the right of Balaam is the fourth figure, Esdra.
Esdra, or Ezra in English, was an ancient Jewish priest and scribe who was one of the primary leaders of the Israelites when they returned from exile to rebuild Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple.
His story begins around 480 B.C. The Persian king Cyrus the Great had given the Jews permission to return to their country after being enslaved in Babylon for 70 years. Waves of immigration took place over the time as clan by clan the Israelites repatriated their country. Some years later the new king of Persia, Artaxerxes, gave Ezra (a shortened form of Azariah, which means “Yahweh has helped”) whatever he needed to make the journey and to rebuild the temple.
When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, King Artaxerxes told nearby countries to provide the Jewish people with supplies for the temple, and he also made the provinces give them food and water when they needed it as well. The king’s decree also allowed the Jewish people to take back the treasures that were taken from the Lord’s Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
The Jewish priests and temple servants did not have to pay taxes because the decree freed them from this responsibility. Life should have been easy with all that help, but Ezra discovered that many of the Jews who preceded him back to his homeland had lost some of their Jewish ways. He was shocked to discover that his people had intermingled with the pagan nations that surrounded Jerusalem.
Ezra prayed for forgiveness for his people, and he then set out to make some reforms. He formed a great assembly comprised of 120 prophets and sages. He influenced this council to oversee and enforce the Biblical laws that God had given to his people in the days of Moses. He no longer permitted any people to marry foreign women and led them to repent of their sins. He then organized leaders for the newly established community. Ezra restored the worship. He renewed the celebration of festivals and supported the rededication of the temple and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem wall. He sought to shape his community in accordance with the Torah. Ezra’s impeccable priestly and scribal credentials allowed him to remain the model leader.
Though Ezra was associated with prophets, he was not considered a prophet in the truest sense of the word. God did not send Ezra out with specific messages or revelations to give to the people. He used him to remind the people about keeping God’s word. Ezra made it a point to keep God’s word relevant to the people and to make sure that they were careful to obey all that was written.
Ezra is depicted on our ceiling holding a scroll of God’s law. His ministry included teaching the Word of God, initiating reforms, restoring worship and leading spiritual revival in Jerusalem. These reforms magnified the need for a genuine concern for reputation and for public image. He reminds us that God’s Word is the only authoritative rule for living, and to be concerned about the image God’s people show to the world.
When we attend Mass, we remember God’s commandment to “Keep holy the Lord’s Day.” Ezra image looks down upon us at every function in our beautiful church.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini from Hunter, M., “Ezra, Bible Prophet – Amazing Bible Timeline with World History.” “Amazing Bible Timeline.” https://amazingbibletimeline.com/blog/bible-prophet-ezra/ and GotQuestions.org; “Who Was Ezra in the Bible?” www.gotquestions.org/life-Ezra.html