Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

April 7, 2009

The Alabaster Jar

Last Sunday we had the pleasure (and, lets be honest, pain) of reading the Passion of Christ according to St. Mark. It starts with one of the most powerful scenes in the life of our patron, Mary Magdalene*:

When he was in Bethany reclining at table
in the house of Simon the leper,
a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,
costly genuine spikenard.
She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.
There were some who were indignant.
"Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?
It could have been sold for more than three hundred days' wages
and the money given to the poor."
They were infuriated with her.
Jesus said, "Let her alone.
Why do you make trouble for her?
She has done a good thing for me.
The poor you will always have with you,
and whenever you wish you can do good to them,
but you will not always have me.
She has done what she could.
She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.
Amen, I say to you,
wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world,
what she has done will be told in memory of her."

There is so much to unpack here, I hardly know where to begin. What strikes me about St. Marks' version today is the universal justness of honoring Christ.

A colleague, who has travelled extensively in Eastern Europe, showed me a bunch of her photographs of Orthodox churches and cathedrals. They were ornate, with onion domes and gilding--even the smallest of churches were full of architectural glory. She said to me: these are the poorest of the poor, and they put all their money into their churches. Then she said, "But I hated Rome. I have no time for Rome, when they sit their among their gaudy marble cherubims, and talk about 'poverty' and 'world hunger.' Sell one of those statues, and feed the poor." I invoked this story in the Gospel (it felt good to quote the bible to a Protestant, I must say).

The poor, indeed, are always with us, and we can always do good for them. I take this to mean two things: we can always serve the poor, and, no matter how many marble cherubims we sell, we'll never solve their poverty; there will always be more people who are poor.

Christ also says that it is good for us to honor him: "She has done a good thing for me...She has done what she could." This story, in the literal narrative, is a precursor to the mournful anointing by Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Joseph of Arimatheia, after Christ has died. Christ reminds us that he will not always be with us, to prepare us for his devastating absence after his death. Now we know, Christ IS Risen. How much more important is it then to honor him through our churches.

According to the old traditions of the Church, on Palm Sunday, the images of Christ, and the statues, and even the processional cross, are covered with purple cloth. The only thing I could focus on during mass was the golden tabernacle, the house of Our Lord. On Thursday, we will remove the Eucharist from that Tabernacle, and strip the altar, and on Friday, after journeying with Christ on the via crucis, the church is left entirely empty and dark. Then, at the Easter Vigil, we bring the light into the dark empty church to find it filled with glory--flowers and light and the statues are uncovered and it seems the entire world is celebrating the Resurrection. I am always so glad for the riches of the church at that moment.

The humblest and poorest of the poor scimp and save to build houses worthy of our Ressurrected Lord, and so should we. But we must also perpare our hearts. Poverty of spirit is not an emptiness (like the cold and empty church, or St. Peter's stripped down to its bones). May we practice a poverty of spirit in our hearts, so that when Christ does rise again we may honor him with full hearts.

*The Catholic Encyclopedia explains at great length the discussion of the identity of Mary Magdalene. The Greek and (for the most part) Protestant traditions count as three separate individuals Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (sister to Martha and Lazarus), and the "sinner" of Luke 7. But, the Roman tradition identifies these three women as all Mary Magdalene, and since Mary Magdalene is often represented with a jar of oil, I always identify her as the woman of this Gospel. One of these days I'd like to really explore this question of the identity of Mary Magdalene, but today is not the day for it.

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