Transience and permanence

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mark 14:3-9, NRSV)

Spring Break’s over; today was Passion Sunday. It’s been a good day. I went to the 5 PM Passion Vespers, which were . . . moving and exquisite and powerful. They alternated readings by Christian writers from patristic and medieval times with hymns, prayers, and choir-sung motets. Each piece had been well-chosen and well-performed. The music at Christ Church may truly be the most beautiful church music I’ve ever heard performed; it’s a quality of music I’d feel privileged to pay to witness.

In a cathedral that seats hundreds, there were perhaps thirty or forty people in attendance, a fifth of them Yale Divinity students.

I spent a while thinking about the passage above, about the woman with the alabaster jar. Singing and cooking are both, at their heart, ephemeral arts. Hours of preparation go into something that vanishes in minutes; in the end, all those hours are simply lost, disappearing like perfumed ointment. In a world where so many go unfed and uneducated and unloved, the cost and labor of a performance like tonight’s seems exorbitant, even unjustifiable, by any calculation.

It’s a reminder that love surpasses and transfigures calculation. “Think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,” one hymn pled, “not my deserving.” Another reading wondered why God would “put on clouds instead of light,” concluding, “Sure it was love, my Lord! For love is only stronger far than death.” Christ didn’t die because He was obligated to do so; He didn’t die because it was the right thing to do. He died for pure, boundless, irrational, unfathomable, tender love.

He died for the kind of love that Kierkegaard found beyond comprehension, the kind that transcends ethics and duties, lest it be cheapened into duty itself.

That’s a love that’s easy to forget. Too often, I think, socially activist Christians tend to remember Christ’s second commandment, loving our neighbors as ourselves, instead of the first one: love God. Period. That’s the first commandment; that’s the chief end of humanity, in the words of the catechism. And if tonight’s service wasn’t a love song to God, I don’t know what is.

I spontaneously invited some of my friends over for dinner, after the service. I thawed frozen gumbo, made rice and chopped salad, and baked a poppy seed cake for dessert; we talked for hours, discussing theology and religion with the fond, teasing familiarity that seminarians seem to develop. I need days like today to remind me that all the work I do may be the means to an end, but this is the end itself: a time when all people can glorify God and enjoy God’s creations, in the world and in each other.

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