It seems over the years, my perspective on life has often broken itself down into three categories: almost, not enough and oh well. These distinctions depend on the day, I guess. Some days I see the glass half full, focusing on life’s potentials. While other days I see the glass half empty, fixating on loss. Yet, there are days when I start to wonder if the glass really has anything in it at all, feeling the onset of an existential crisis. But then there was Mary. One day, long ago, she decided to break the glass altogether. I grew up well aware of this epoch Biblical account, but I’ve come to relate to her story with a new expanded perspective of how to live. Re-examining Mary’s story has inspired me to re-examine my own and accept that I am a part of a long tradition of transformation.
Three of the four gospels recount the beautifully scandalous tale of how Mary shared with Jesus probably the most treasured thing she possessed – an unopened jar of pure mard, which was an extremely expensive perfume. During a dinner party, she unabashedly broke the bottle’s seal and poured the perfume over Jesus’ head and feet, anointing him as an honoring and perhaps even healing gesture (Matthew 26:6- 13, Mark 14:3–9, John 12:1-8). Yep, and the onlookers were not amused by or supportive of her actions. In fact, they immediately scolded her for such an impetuous act. First, the gospel writers record one party goer accusing her of grossly wasting a valuable commodity. Second, it may be suggested that culturally in those days, a woman performing such an act (especially in mixed company) could have been perceived blasphemous. In ancient times, anointing someone was done by pouring oil or perfume over the crown of the head and letting the liquid flow down the face to symbolize recognition or inauguration of someone in high royal or religious rank. This tradition was notably performed by a high priest. Anointing someone also served as a healing ritual. Applying a medicinal balm or oil to wounds or an ailing person in a formal manner demonstrated a blessed and beloved sign of mercy. Contextualizing the scene from Mary’s vantage point requires spanning further back in history. In the Old Testament, David as a shepherd boy was anointed by Samuel the high priest to be the next king (1 Samuel 16:13). Later, David as king and psalmist poetically described God as his ‘Shepherd’ who attentively anointed his body and additionally restored his soul (Psalm 23:1-3). Furthermore, David declared in his famous psalm ‘my cup runs over’ (Psalm 23:5). David, like Mary, was not shy about what’s in the glass. David didn’t see the glass half anything or even empty. He celebrated its sweet overflowing status regardless of the surrounding situations that begged to deplete his strength. Throughout his life, David was constantly surrounded by trials and threats, which kept him on the move. Yet, he remained confident that “goodness and mercy” would sweetly pour over him “all the days” of his life and that one day every trouble would be washed away by such divine outpouring. He would reach a place he could forever call home (Psalm 23:6).
I can so easily laps into the mindset of seeing life as an overwhelmingly sour experience and not as one overflowing with sweetness. Initially, I shy away from bringing to my mouth the cup life hands me. I get scared that my mental and emotional taste buds will react with an intolerable ability to stomach any sort of sip. So why bother? But I am, at least, still willing to hold the cup in hand and contemplate its contents. As they say, ‘I don’t have a drinking problem; I have a thinking problem’. During David’s era, a woman accused of marital infidelity was prompted to drink a cup of bitter herbs. If truly innocent, the caustic cocktail would miraculously taste sweet (Numbers 5:11 -31). I’m sure a flinching face after one sip was a dead give-away. I confess, at times, when I bring life’s cup to my lips and sip, the look on my face openly reveals my infidelity of not being faithful to the belief that life was meant to be a joyous journey with a defined destination. As a result, my disbelief inhibits me from appreciating that this life, here and now, is a gift. Instead, my doubt provokes me to anxiously accept my existence on earth as a grievance. I’m just doing my best to hang on until I get ‘there’. Thankfully there are times I can taste the sweetness therein despite the initial bitter drink life serves up. This is a miracle. I’m found faithful and can even toast to the source of life rather than wallow in the stress of it all.
I think this is what James, the New Testament writer, meant when he prescribed having “pure joy” in the midst of suffering (James 1:2 -3). Like James, I’m not denying distress persists. I am simply acknowledging that miracles can and do happen to pull me through the tough times so I can keep moving forward towards the heavenly home sweet home that David referenced. In the psych biz, this process is referred to as resilience. But as a Christian, I prefer to call this experience redemption. What’s the alternative? Prolonged shame and doubt (and even anger) about what life and others have done to me or what I’ve done to myself and others keeps me shackled to the proverbial bar stool, staring at the bottom of a glass filled with spirits of self pity. But praise God for grace, which intervenes and reminds me that I am in this pilgrimage for the long haul and that I will get there. Martin Luther King preached many paramount words of courage to the pilgrims of the civil rights movements with this inspirational theme. My most favorite phrase he simply and inspiringly spoke was his declaration to “keep moving!” He described the 1960s journey as “carving a tunnel of hope through the great mountain of despair”. He further declared that “if you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk crawl; but by all means, keep moving!” And I footnote his cheer that if you can’t crawl, God will carry you over, under, around or through that mountain.
During a ten-year span, between my mid-twenties and mid-thirties, I had to move living locations seven times. Such a nomadic experience has reinforced the impermanency of things. I never anticipated or intended to accumulate so many addresses in a short amount of time. I also never expected how much I would have to give away every time I transitioned to the next home. Despite my best bubble wrap attempts to preserve what I could not/would not give up, something treasured always broke in the moving process and I would be faced with the sad reality that it was indeed time to let go. All that packing up and moving on proved what is truly permanent and unbreakable – I am alive, I am loved and I am not alone. I possess these three essential identities because of who God is. No one or no thing can ever remove these eternal realities from me. Never, ever!
Let me be clear, I do not like being broken. I don’t like it one bit. But I am broken; and I’m learning to deal – I’m learning to accept (and even celebrate) that I’m part of the ongoing Gospel story of redemption. The artist in me can not deny that without confronting brokenness, no beauty can be resurrected from the rubble. The expansive Byzantine mosaics or the elaborate Gothic stained glass panels would have never been created if pieces were not collected – broken. The artist’s vision in assembling such masterpieces was articulated at the core through the intentional selection, which often involved further meticulous breaking for pieces to fit. Then the arrangement of such pieces to be carefully placed in specific manners to tell a specific story could occur. This is probably why I have come to love the art of collage so much. Whether conscious or unconscious, collage compels me to rummage among unlikely items and sources to select, cut, trim, position and paste into one united whole a bunch of broken pieces in order to depict a scene or tell a story. Each part serves its purpose whether or not it is overtly identifiable. I, myself, am the same way. I’m a collage, part of a cosmic collage. I’m stained glass in the process of transformation. I’m getting closer to completion. Hindsight is always 20/20, right? I think heaven will be too. The apostle Paul spoke of this hindsight understanding in his famous love passage (1 Corinthians 13). Paul underscored what is worth understanding now – faith, hope and love. One day, I will eventually and fully see the big picture for what it really is. But until then, faith is about accepting that the broken pieces have worth, hope is about acknowledging the pieces will be put together to reveal a worthy artistic rendering. And love is actually doing it and sharing the product (or at least the production process) with whomever needs to be reminded that they are part of the picture too. Mazel Tov!
- East Window at Bath Abbey, England
- Until We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
- “Keep Moving….” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.