I find the dates and events of history interesting, but the personalities who helped fashion that history are fascinating. I love to hear their stories in order to learn the whys beneath the whats. Since everything begins with our hearts, I like knowing the motives behind the deeds. That is why Mary Magdalene stands out to me in today’s passage. I have imagined a scene where Mary has been asked to tell her story.
In my imagination I see her having outlived her fellow disciples. She is an old woman now whose body is nearly worn out, yet whose spirit is still vibrant. Life itself stirs in her eyes and is heard in her voice. It is her 70th birthday, and she is surrounded by the community of saints with whom she has lived for so many years. In our scene, she has just received a gift that seems to have taken her voice away and filled her eyes with hot tears. She and the room are silent, but the air is filled with an exotic aroma. In her lap with the lid removed is an alabaster vial.
After many minutes had passed, she dries her eyes and addressed her benefactors.
“I am speechless with gratitude. How could you have done this?” Still coming to terms with the extravagance, she blurts out, “Oh my, oh my! I know you precious people. How you must have sacrificed to do this!” Gripped by a fresh thought and now trying to make eye contact with every person in the room, she says with a level voice, “As you know, I am familiar with the cost of such things.”
The little girls, taken in by the object’s smell and appearance mobbed Aunt Mary, assaulting her with a barrage of questions. With her grip slightly tighter on her vial, she allows each child to touch it and take in its potent fragrance. As each child takes their turn, Mary says to the larger gathering, “Your gift has taken me back to past events, some of which I recall nearly every hour, and then again, to other things I have not thought of for years. Many of you know the general drift of it, but none of you have heard the whole story. May I disclose to you dear friends a bit more of it? If it is alright with the parents, let’s send the children out of doors for a bit. Ok?”
“I was born into a very, very poor family with too many mouths to feed. I was always hungry for both food and attention. Both were in short supply in this house where, of necessity, all were greedily focused on the business of not starving. From my first memories, I recall every one being chased out the door in the morning with the understanding that we were to beg, borrow, and steal anything that might help sustain us. The streets were where I lived until the law intervened, taking my parents away as the ringleaders of their own little den of thieves. This was when I was probably about 10. I had not yet become a woman.
“We children scattered like rats when the authorities came. I never knew what happened to some of my siblings. Most of us were taken in by extended family—or like me, by opportunists. At first I was in awe of the portions of food I was given and the attention I received. Never had I experienced anything like this. Compared to my street existence, I thought I had become a princess—until my ward began letting men come into my room. It was then I realized I was a slave and I was going to be used.
“I was a street-wise kid, so I knew about prostitutes. They marketed themselves in public. But I did not know that brokers who sold their wares privately marketed children. Even though I was already a hate-filled little thief, I was still a child in my body when horrible, horrible things began to happen.” Mary went silent again for a long time. When she began again, she whispered, “Lord forgive them, they didn’t know what they were doing.”
“What was left of my innocence was taken from me, and I assure you, I forgave no one. You might ask, “Why didn’t you run a way?” I did a few times, and, sadly, I returned because, as filthy as it was, it was preferable to starvation. As I grew into a woman, I received more and more attention. I would be a liar if I were to tell you that I did not enjoy it. This is how I became a prostitute.
“You learn quickly what you must do if you want to eat and avoid getting hurt. I learned my trade well. My wages were all there was to my miserable existence. Every coin I earned was my treasure. I had paid dearly for each of them. Doing what I did causes things to die inside you. Hope dies. Love dies. Any semblance of goodness dies. In its place grew a hard and haughty spirit that lived only for its next coin. There was really nothing else, nothing in my heart at all except…” and Mary lifted the alabaster vial from her lap.
“When I was 18, I took my coins and I bought a vial nearly identical to this. Nothing had ever given me as much pleasure as my alabaster vial full of spikenard. It was a treasure by anyone’s standard, even a princess. This vial was really all I had to show for my life. It was the center of it. I would have never even loosened my grip on it had I not met the One in whose name we gather. Here is what happened…
“It was approaching evening and all the women with families were returning to their homes. As their day concluded, mine was just beginning. This was when I saw three men coming toward me. “Ah customers” I thought. As I made my typical moves toward them, I noticed two of them peeled off as if to avoid me, only one kept walking— straight at me. “Oh no!” As he came nearer I recognized who he was. It was the Rabbi from Galilee, the one rumored to be the Messiah. I had just turned to run, knowing he would make me feel small and dirty like all religious people did, when he said, “Mary wait. We must talk.”
“I was frozen in my tracks. “We must talk? About what? My sin?” Something volcanic within me was rising up. It was undiluted hatred. It was boiling in me. With uncontrolled anger and arrogance, I unloaded on him. “You want to talk about my sin! Well my sin is my vocation. If you want anything from me, show me your money or get out of my face!” I was screaming, “Time is money.” He just said, “Mary, I’m Jesus, and I didn’t come to talk about your sin.”
“When I heard the name “Jesus,” I felt as if I were being ripped in two. Something in me wanted so desperately to respond civilly to this person who had approached me in kindness. Yet something more powerful was drowning that voice with vile thoughts and utterances. It was as though someone (or someones) other than me were speaking. It was my throat and lips forming the oaths, but it was no longer my voice speaking. I vaguely remember my arms flailing away when the last thing I heard was Jesus forcefully saying, “Come out of her!”
“I woke up lying on the pavement. The first eyes that met mine were those of Jesus. I immediately said, ” My sin is my daily bread. Please leave me. I am lost.” His eyes never left mine. He said again, “Mary, I did not come to speak about your sin. I came here to tell you to sell all that you have and to come and follow me.” I said, “Teacher, I have no wealth to give away.” His eyes were piercing my soul when he asked, “So, you have no treasure?” My mind went immediately to my alabaster vial. I once again went silent. He and I both knew. He took my hands and helped me to my feet. Without letting go of them, looking into my eyes, he said, ‘Go and sin no more.’ Since it has been spoken of ever since, everyone knows what happened that evening at the party I crashed…
Returning from her reverie, she said to all, “That is an untold part of my story, and I suspect, in it’s own way, it is yours as well, isn’t it?” For those of us who follow Him, he is faithful to reveal competing treasures. And finally, thank you again for such a gift. This kind of irresponsible extravagance is exactly the kind of stunt he would pull. Bless you all.”
Father, Please show us where our treasures are so that we are not invested in the wrong kingdom. May your Words demolish the defenses we have placed around our idols. Deliver us from evil Lord and let us discover that You Yourself are our daily bread.