In both Gospels of Matthew and Mark, a story takes place in Bethany, “in the house of Simon the leper.” A woman comes “with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.” The writer tells us that this woman breaks open the jar and pours the perfumed ointment on Jesus’ head. Some present protest, naming it a waste, but Jesus defends the woman’s act. In fact, he says that, “wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mt 26: 6-13; Mk 14:3-9).
It is a familiar passage for most of us. The exchange between the woman and Jesus takes place in a few, short lines. The woman never gets to speak in the recounting, and most of the story focuses on the ensuing argument about the rightness of her act. But, wow! If we read between the lines, what a powerful model we discover for the spiritual life. In a talk at our motherhouse a few weeks ago, presenter Sr. Colleen Mary Mallon, OP, offered this alabaster jar image to our congregation as one to consider as we move into our future.
Praying with the passage at Sr. Colleen’s invitation, I grew curious about the woman who came to anoint Jesus. Where did she come from? Did she know Jesus? And this alabaster jar: Where did she get it in the first place? Why did she have it? Many commentaries I’ve read on the passage say that nard was most often made and sealed in India and then imported. As the Scripture notes, a beautiful flask filled with the precious liquid would cost 300 days’ wages. Had she herself bought the perfume at such a steep price? Was it a gift from someone or perhaps a treasure of her family? Either way, this was a costly, valued possession and therefore a radical act to decant all of it on Jesus.
If the woman had owned the nard for some time, I wondered what she had previously imagined keeping it for. Perhaps, she had considered opening it on other occasions but then saved it instead. Or perhaps she had envisioned a particular moment in the future, maybe the death of a close relative, for which she would open it.
And yet, that day, something compelled her. She decided – this was the time; this is what the nard was for. Every last drop. Onlookers didn’t quite understand, but she knew. Jesus was worth the gift.
I carry this powerful image in prayer as I look toward professing first vows in less than two months. I am compelled, like this woman, to bring all that is most precious to me and pour it out on the body of Christ. Every last drop.
I often wondered growing up what my life would be about. To what would I give myself? I pictured marriage and a family. I contemplated different career paths. Throughout my20s, I’ve wrestled with more serious vocational discernment. As my heart’s desire has become clear, my loved ones have been, for the most part, generously supportive of my journey. There have been those who are baffled by the choice. Some people have even voiced concerns, often with kind compliments and well-meaning care: Are you sure this is what you want? You’re so young! You don’t have to do this to serve God.
Yes, of course. My talents, my gifts, my passion, my energy, my love: They could’ve been given to a variety of equally sacred and holy paths. But somehow I know, deep inside, that this is the time; this is what I am made for.
I opened my request to our congregational president for approval to make first vows with: As I write this letter to apply for vows, I stand in awe at the mystery of the call. In 2008, when I first sensed God’s nudge to explore the religious life, I was terrified. It was something I had never considered and certainly did not want. I never could have predicted how differently I feel now, almost seven years later. My heart beats with joy as I consider professing first vows as a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati.
Is this not the heart of vocation? It’s finding that which compels us to total self-giving and at the same time fills us with joy and inner freedom. The spiritual journey we walk is a perpetual spilling out our alabaster jars. What this woman does for Jesus in a few moments we long to do with our whole lives.
It’s a couple throwing their lot in together and for good times and bad in the sacrament of marriage. It’s a parent up at 4 a.m. with a sick child and then off to a full day of work. It’s a son caring for an elderly parent. It’s a teacher using her own money and her weekend to plan a special activity for her students. It’s a firefighter risking his life to save others. The giving might seem illogical or irrational. But Jesus showed us that it is what we are made for.
In the passage of the alabaster jar, we must not forget to look to Jesus. Preparing to write this reflection, I looked up images of this scene and consistently found a stiff, stoic Jesus staring off in the distance as this woman stands behind him and pours, almost ignored. Are you kidding me? Our God of Love Incarnate sits unmoved by his beloved daughter’s act of love? No way! Listening to the reading, I envision his face, his eyes and his gestures as the woman anoints him. Can you imagine? I see such tenderness and intimacy! I see that he is deeply touched by the woman’s offering. I picture him smiling, his cheeks aglow with gratitude and awe. In an intent gaze, he sees and loves all that she is. He knows the depths of her heart. Overjoyed to receive her gift, he grasps her hand, or gently touches her shoulder, or embraces her.
I sense Jesus offering me this image and asking me to let it seep into my heart as I ponder my upcoming vows. It feels like Jesus wants me to let him fix that loving, tender gaze upon me. Even though I may feel unworthy, he asks me not to look away. I see his delighted smile; I sense that he peers sincerely into my soul and treasures my earnest desire to serve, even with all of my shortcomings. Can this humbling mystery be true? Jesus rejoices over my gift of self, just as he rejoices over yours!
As I make vows of poverty celibacy, and obedience with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, I want nothing more than to pour out all that I am for Jesus. In the deepest nooks and crannies of my being, I pray to honor the “memory of her,” she who goes unfortunately unnamed in the beautiful Scripture passage of the alabaster jar. I pray that in my life I may model her generosity, courage and love. I pray for the grace to give the best of me always in the service of God and all of Creation. I pray to hold nothing back, but instead to offer every last drop for the One who is Love poured out for us.
Jesus, it’s all for you.
[Tracy Kemme is a novice with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She has a background in Hispanic ministry, having served both in Ecuador and at the U.S.-Mexico border prior to novitiate.]
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