The Alabaster Soul

To speak of something breaking is to speak of the weakness of one thing and the strength of another. Typically, something breaks for a reason. The problem is inherent, whether due to fragile materials or flawed construction. For example, a vase can crack because the ceramic is very fine (read: brittle), or because the hairline fracture which had previously been invisible to the naked eye is finally revealed under duress. A broken thing has proven itself unable to “hold itself together”—to maintain integrity—beyond a certain threshold. It’s called “the breaking point” for a reason. Up to this point, I can manage. Beyond this point, all bets are off. And here’s the thing: most of the time we don’t know our breaking point until it is surpassed. Variables can be tangible or intangible: literal weight, literal force, or immaterial factors such as stress, temptation, delay, etc. In any event, the result is the same. Toys break. Coffee cups break. Relationships break. Men and women break. Hearts break.

Clinically speaking, the breaking is quite informative. It tells us the limits of a thing. Metaphorically, though most are unwanted, some are chosen, and this tells us the values of a thing. Such beautiful anomalies are called voluntary breakings.

Enter Mary of Bethany. Mary had something quite precious and rare (you know the story): an alabaster vial of costly perfume. All of a sudden, she takes us by surprise. To show what was really most precious to her, she smashed her other precious thing, shattering it beyond repair. Something costly and dramatic allowed her, by comparison, to properly magnify and display the thing (or person) comparatively more precious to her soul. The external object became a display case for her inner priorities. It’s a simple story, but wonderfully layered, densely suggestive. For example, for full impact, we see how the drama of the breaking was as important to the tale as the object broken. This was a package deal. If she had simply handed Jesus her bottle and said, “You are worth more than this to me,” the gesture would have been nice but unmemorable. To take something so fragile and strikingly aromatic—a family heirloom, no less—and then smash it in a display of fantastic unrecoverability, was to lend a daring sort of permanence to the story. It imprints. It connects. We are left holding our breath at the scene, shocked, overcome with the literal and metaphorical fragrance Mary has released. We don’t have to be told that this was an act of worship, it’s obvious. It’s worship elevated to an art form. The takeaway: transcendence can be achieved when precious things get broken on purpose.

Watchman Nee said, “The breaking of the alabaster box and the anointing of the Lord filled the house with the odour, with the sweetest odour. Everyone could smell it. Whenever you meet someone who has really suffered; been limited, gone through things for the Lord, willing to be imprisoned by the Lord, just being satisfied with Him and nothing else, immediately you scent the fragrance. There is a savour of the Lord. Something has been crushed, something has been broken, and there is a resulting odour of sweetness.”

We all have our breaking points, but what if we’re missing the point? What if we should actually pursue those thresholds, or at the very least, not spend so much time and effort avoiding them? What if we lived in intentional weakness rather than hedging our bets to maintain our good, clean, “I’ve been saved” Christian image? Here’s a crazy idea. What if Christians cussed more, not less? What if we made big, obvious mistakes, rather than trying to stuff our darker impulses and rebrand them with niceties? Too offensive, you say? I don’t know, nothing exasperated Jesus more than religious pretenders. But let me say it another way. What if we have taken a Fruit of the Spirit, such as self-control, and carnalized its application to the point that we basically live in perpetual hypocrisy, always speaking politely when anger, fear, jealousy and murder are raging in our heart…you know, the broken parts. Remember, breaking points tell us the limit of a thing. Why do we hide it, so that our story becomes Mary-in-reverse? “Oh dear, here’s this terrible, spilled ointment all over, smelling up the room, and this shattered bottle. Dear me, what a mess. Let me just gather it up, wipe it down and clear this rubbish out of the way. So sorry for the trouble everyone!”

Deliver us from such pretensions! What if our nice, sanctified image is more sinful and fake than what it might cost us, as an act of raw, honest worship, to say, I surrender! (Smash!) Here’s the real me! It’s not pretty, but this is all I’ve got, and so it’s all God’s got to work with, but somehow He makes all things new, and I’m somehow included. If my breaking point is His starting point, I only diminish Him when I go into damage control mode, good Christian mode, etc. What if, instead, the world saw something broken made whole (and still in process), rather than something “good” merely made “better”? What if we opted for a discipleship of voluntary weakness, dashed on the ground, displaying our flaws and fragility, not hiding our brokenness but presenting it as a perpetual offering, our greatest treasure, the very thing that could make our mundane existence something transcendent and beautiful beyond all measure? After all, Jesus doesn’t redeem the beautiful. He makes beautiful. What if?

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