Alabaster Jars – The Rev. Michelle Meech
April 03, 2022
From John’s Gospel today: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
A group of friends sit on the floor around a low dinner table. The room is dimly lit but candles help everyone to see in the darkness. There are plates of food, cups of wine. They are chatting with each other, sometimes laughing, sometimes in serious tones. All of them tired but with a sense of hope and purpose written across their faces.
These friends have been hard at work, crusading to raise everyone’s awareness and, as a result, have gained a following. And their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, has irritated the powers that be – both the temple leadership, some of whom are their kin, and the Roman authorities who are occupying their land. In his teaching and in his healing, Jesus has undermined the way things are by reminding people that to worship God, to be surrendered to God’s service, has nothing to do with who has power and who doesn’t. Who is doing the right thing and who is not. It has nothing to do with maintaining business-as-usual.
Jesus has, instead, helped people to learn the truth of what God’s love actually is. He has helped people to find their own voice and their own agency by lifting up the poor and by healing the rifts between society and those who are marginalized from society. To erase false borders and boundaries so as to refocus everyone on the truth of being beloved children of God – that we are responsible for one another. We are made of the same earth. We breathe the same air.
Jesus and his friends have created a movement.
And so, as Jesus comes to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, he stops in Bethany, a town that’s about 2 miles away from Jerusalem, at the house of the siblings: Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Where they host a dinner in his honor. All of the friends have been invited and welcomed. All of the friends are there together sharing a meal.
And then, at some point during the meal, Mary approaches Jesus. In her hand is an alabaster jar. The friends all know this to be an expensive thing, a precious thing – this alabaster jar. Alabaster was one of the precious stones used to decorate the temple. The same temple where Jesus had turned over the tables in righteous anger because the temple authorities had turned worship into commerce, enabling moneychangers to make a profit from the exchange of state coins into Jewish shekels. The same temple where the temple itself had come to be worshipped and given homage to in place of God.
This alabaster jar, then, represented so many things to these people. They knew something inside must be very expensive and deeply loved to be carried in such a precious vessel. As such, it was a thing to be prized. And a thing to be uncertain and mistrustful of because it represented the wealth and privilege of the powerful. It was something both beautiful and scary.
As Mary stands near Jesus with this alabaster jar in her hands, what is she thinking? What is her intent? What is she feeling? Is she about to do something she has planned or is she acting spontaneously? We don’t know.
What we do know is that she was courageous to do the thing she did. To be a woman in a society where women had no agency or power, even amongst friends. To step into the center of their attention and to break the jar open and pour out the costly perfume onto the feet of Jesus. To make such a vulnerable offering amongst so many people who knew her. To risk ridicule and to risk breaking the norms of the group, even of this group. To take something so expensive and to spend it so… wastefully.
At least, we know that’s how Judas saw this act. Wasteful spending.
But this act… this act of devotion, this act of faith. This act of love… fills the house with the fragrance of the perfume.
Author Stephanie Spellers uses this story – found in both the Gospel of Mark and John – in her book, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community. This is a book many of us here at St. John’s read last fall. Here is what Stephanie says about this story:
“While everyone else freaks out, Jesus received her offering and thanks her for preparing his body for death and burial, and he promises that her extravagant, prodigal tribute will be remembered and retold for generations to come. What did Jesus notice and admire so much in her? He didn’t see waste. He understood that she was literally giving up the best of what she had – the alabaster jar and the nard – because he mattered that much to her. He was the holy one, the center of her world, and she had reoriented her life around him as her focus.
He must have valued her ability to discern what’s important. Some disciples obsessed over the container, but what good is an exquisite jar if the ointment it holds can’t get out? Others were anxious about losing the expensive nard, but what good is life-giving ointment if you don’t share it with people in their time of need? She broke the jar. She poured out the oil. God blesses her for it.
Finally, I imagine Jesus was relieved to see someone finally operating outside the bounds of moderation, rationalism, and business-as-usual. He was about to be killed by the powers and principalities of this world. Unlike his followers, she grasped the urgency of the moment, took a risk, and leapt to meet him in it.”
So I ask you… what are your alabaster jars? What are our alabaster jars? What are the things that we think are so precious that we couldn’t possibly do without them?
Stephanie goes on: “I want to sit at the feet of this sister and tell her about today, about [church] decline, pandemic, [racial] reckonings, loss, and disruption. I want to confide in her [and say]: “So much has cracked open. We have been cracked open. We don’t know how to embrace the disruption, make the sacrifice, stop worshipping the beauty of the jar, and instead break it open so the healing substance inside can work its way into a world that so desperately needs it. We’re tempted to scramble around and gather the pieces and reassemble the jar and scoop up the lost oil. And we’re really terrified we might be the jar, broken open by God, for love of the world. Maybe that’s what God wants, but it’s not what most American church folks signed on for.”
And Stephanie imagines that this is Mary’s response: “You and your church, you are holding a beautiful jar. You are used to grasping it with both hands, tilting and pouring the contents with moderation through the carefully crafted spout. Someday, you will have to break it open so the contents flow free, or God will do it for you.
You and your church, you think loving a thing means protecting and maintaining it exactly as it was handed to you. Someday you will understand what it means to love something enough to let it crack apart and just sit with the pieces, notice what needs to be removed for good, and then faithfully piece together what matters most to make something more whole, something more like what God intended all along. Someday, you will lose your life and gain real life.” (quotes are from pages 4-6 of Spellers’ book)
Someday, you will have to break it open so the contents flow free, or God will do it for you. This is reminiscent of today’s Psalm, number 126. The last verse: “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” It’s about loss and about hope. and how they are tied together.
You see, in our attempts to make sure that we have enough to sustain our life, we misunderstand the reason for our life. We do not live so that we can live. We live so that we can love. And love extravagantly, wildly, abundantly… wastefully.
Christ is that love. Christ is God’s incarnate Love.
The theme we have been following through Lent is that of Renewal. Renewal of ourselves. Renewal of our community of St. John’s. Renewal of Christ in the world, the renewal of Love incarnate. They are all interwoven. One affects the other affects the other.
Renewal never comes as an easy fix because renewal is, essentially, healing. A commitment to diving into the depths and coming back up to the surface – as a different creation, renewed in God’s love, and ready to serve Christ as if Christ is the center of our world, the very reason we live and breathe. This is what we are asked to do every year during Lent. And what we are asked to do every year during Holy Week.
And in diving into the depths, to come back renewed, resurrected with Christ, where we have the courage to break the precious alabaster and fill the room with fragrance – costly, precious fragrance. To move outside the bounds of moderation and business-as-usual where we protect and grasp, fearful of wasteful spending where we will surely die in the precious tombs we have built for ourselves.
And, instead, live deeply into a new life. A life of abundance. A risen life. Called by God to become a new creation.