On a silent retreat, I spent an entire day meditating on the Mark 14 story of a woman who pours a whole jar of perfume over Jesus’ head.
A funny thing tends to happen when you spend a long period immersed in a single biblical text. Individual words and phrases emerge with their own significance and weight. On this occasion, I found myself captured by the word “broke.” “She broke the jar and poured the perfume on Jesus’ head” (14:3).
Broke. It’s such a strong word. What has been broken has been altered — in this case, irretrievably. It has been completely committed to a single purpose; it is no longer useful for anything else. No returns or refunds or exchanges. Breaking and pouring, this woman has gone all in.
I don’t know much about ancient nard, worth a year’s salary. But I am still nursing a $30 bottle of perfume I bought six years ago. It doesn’t take an expert to understand that nard isn’t meant to be used this way. It’s shocking. It’s immoderate. It’s no wonder everyone watching is thinking, “What a waste!”
Back in college, I used to regularly pray the lyrics of a song by a group called Shane and Shane: “Use me, break me, waste me on you, Lord. Ruin me, take me, waste me on you. For to die is to live. Lord, I want it all.”
As a young adult just starting out in life, these words were thick with a kind of spiritual romance that made my heart pound and my imagination soar.
But to actually live a life shaped by this prayer, year after year and decade after decade, to rise each day and seek to empty yourself in service to God and others, to sacrifice dreams and ambitions to a kingdom not yet come, to give life and love to a (mostly) unseen God and to visibly hostile enemies — this is something else entirely.
In the best case, these things are costly. In the worst case, a voice begins to whisper, “Maybe it really is a waste. What good is this sacrifice, really? What difference did it make? Maybe it wouldn’t matter if you kept a little bit back for yourself or hedged your bets a little. Moderation is a virtue, they say. Maybe you’ve had enough of Christ, and it’s time to get another life.”
Then I hear the crack of a jar shattering. The gasps. I smell an intense aroma filling the room and spilling into the streets. I see priceless oil running down the sides of Jesus’ face.
And I think, “Yes. Yes. How beautifully wasteful. What an expression of worship, to empty the jar to the dredges. More than that, what a witness to the worth of the one on whom such extravagance is poured.”
There are so many mistakes we can make along the way. I feel sure I’ve made them all. Sometimes we make a grand gesture, crack and dump the jar in a burst of huge emotions. Then the moment passes, we walk away and forget why it even mattered. We wake up years later and wonder why we’re cracked and empty.
Other times we get in the habit of cracking and pouring day after day. But we no longer do it for love. We don’t recall why we do it at all. We simply do it over and over because it’s easier than reassessing where we’ve changed and why.
But I see in the story of Mark 14 a vision, an invitation, for a different way of life. It’s an invitation to get up every day, go to Jesus, look him in the face and deliberately break our life open and pour it on his head. To lavish on him everything we’ve done — body, mind, and soul.
To break and pour. Break and pour. Break and pour. Break and pour.
To declare to ourselves and a watching world, “This is what he is worth.”
Strange. Inexplicable. Extravagant. Wasteful. It might well be all of that. But after years and tears and doubts, I find I still cannot imagine a more beautiful way of life.