EVERY faith has its festival days – a rich variety of occasions which are special, sometimes for historical and cultural reasons, sometimes for purely spiritual reflection.
They are often a mixture of all of these, but they always reflect the faith that holds them dear.
I think it's particularly useful to take time to enjoy these special days which do not necessarily fall on a conventional weekend but provide an opportunity to focus on something 'other' than ordinary life, the hurly-burly of work and structured everyday living.
For the Jewish community, the festival of Purim which has just been celebrated is a complex mix of fun, faith and reflection.
Falling in springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, it commemorates the events that took place when a large number of Jews were exiles living in the ancient empire of Persia.
It involves the King Ahasuerus, a goodie called Mordechai, who was a member of Jewish community, and the King's grand vizier Haman, the baddie who threatened the lives of the whole Jewish community.
Above all the festival celebrates the heroic actions of a woman, Mordechai's niece, Esther, who as one of the King's wives offered up her own life to save the Jewish community. You can read the story in all its colourful entirety in the Book of Esther — or even look it up on Wikipedia!
Many Jewish festivals contain all the elements necessary for family participation and this is no exception: a religious celebration, special things to eat and food for thought. In this case the story is read out in full in the synagogue, adults and children alike dress up — as characters from the story or just in fancy dress.
And when the story is read out, every time the baddie's name is mentioned people shout, shake football type rattles, blow trumpets and generally make enough noise to raise the roof!
I was once giving a talk about Passover to a school group in North Oxford. A little boy put his hand up. “Can I ask you something not about Passover?” he asked. “Of course” I replied, wondering what I had let myself in for. “I live near the synagogue,” he went on, “and you were all making a terrible noise last night. What was all that about?” So I told him all about Purim and about the different biscuits that are baked: sugar-coated ones called Haman's ears or filled with jam or poppy seeds known as Haman’s purses.
And about the obligation to give both to charity and reciprocal gifts to friends and family; and about the party atmosphere that is required throughout the festival.
But what about the spiritual side, the religious and philosophical aspects to the celebrations?
Well firstly we give thanks to God for the deliverance of that group of people from what would have been genocide.
Secondly we are reminded that even when they appear to be integrated and are decent law keeping people, groups who live as a minority in a host population can become vulnerable to attack when it suits the political masters of the time.
Something that we all should be constantly aware of. And perhaps, most importantly, the story tells us that the actions of just one or two people who are prepared to show courage can foil malevolent intent.
Hopefully the example of Esther and her uncle Mordechai can give those who hear the story the confidence themselves to show courage in the face of bullies and tyranny.
I am sure that the story and celebration of Purim are all too relevant in the world today.