This being Holy Week, as usual I am going to take the time over the next few days on this blog to share some reflections on this most sacred time of the year for Christians. However, I hope that my non-Christian readers will not wander off, to wait until after Easter for me to ruminate on more secular subjects. I believe that even non-Christian readers may find this week’s posts to be worth a read, because I intend to look at some cultural matters related to the events Christians are recalling this week, which I think may prove of interest to all.
The text I will be using as a touchstone for this week’s writing is the retelling of Jesus’ Passion and Death in St. Mark’s Gospel, which we heard at mass yesterday. You can read St. Mark’s entire account on the USCCB website by following this link. Today, I would like us to focus on a small detail from the early part of this passage, in which Jesus is anointed with oil by a woman who is traditionally identified as being St. Mary Magdalen.
Before we begin, let us all agree to take The Magdalen as herself, and not some twisted fantasy of diseased minds. She was a disciple of Jesus – not a mistress, a wife, a female priest, a freemason, a space alien, or anything else you may have heard from those who, like Dan Brown, hate the Catholic Church in particular or Christianity in general, or who are simply ignorant and prone to accept the ridiculous as truth. If you are looking for anti-Catholic, heretical conspiracy theories with your morning coffee, then I suggest you look elsewhere.
Now, turning back to the matter at hand, St. Mark tells us that Jesus and His Disciples were in the town of Bethany, outside of Jerusalem, and He had been invited to dinner at the home of a friend:
When He was in Bethany reclining at table
in the house of Simon the leper,
a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,
costly genuine spikenard.
She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on His head.
Rather than focus on the spiritual significance of this event as understood by Jesus, which becomes clear if you read the rest of the passage, I want to focus our attention on the jar, if the reader will indulge me. The connections that we make between everyday objects and more complex concepts when we are children, often have an impact on the perceptions we have and the choices we make as adults. In this case, The Magdalen’s jar of perfumed oil is something that I am reminded of almost every day, because of just such a connection I made when I was little.
When I was growing up – and indeed still now – my parents kept the household sugar in two places. A bulky, large sugar bag was kept in a canister in a high cabinet in the kitchen, along with the flour, salt, and so on. From this large container, a much smaller, lidded, sterling silver sugar bowl was filled for everyday use, and kept on a lower cabinet to reach easily. So for example, when I go home for Easter this coming weekend, I will get the sugar for my morning coffee out of this silver sugar bowl; if it is empty, I will have to fill it from the large canister in one of the high cabinets.
This particular sugar bowl has a very pleasing shape, looking very 18th century, yet it was also somehow vaguely exotic in my mind. As I grew older and I began to look more closely at the objects one could see depicted in paintings and sculpture, I noticed that St. Mary Magdalen was often shown with a jar that looked not unlike a taller version of our sugar bowl. Indeed, in the back of the church connected to my primary school, there was a life-sized, very Victorian-looking Crucifixion sculpture group, with Christ on the Cross flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John, and with The Magdalen sitting at the foot of the Cross with her alabaster jar. When I was very small, I always wanted to go over and take off the cover of the jar, and see whether I might find some tasty sugar inside.
When I moved into my present house some years ago, I had to purchase a number of household items, including a coffee service. I did not really think about it until I got home, but of all of the different sugar bowl options available, I chose one that most closely resembled the one that my parents have. The ones with more squat lids, or with side handles, or with simpler lines simply did not appeal to me. My brain had made the connection between the sugar bowl it had known growing up, and the symbolic connection of that sugar bowl to the Passion and Death of Jesus, through the gift of St. Mary Magdalen, and so of course I wanted to have that iconographic reminder in my own home.
The point here is something which I think is worth all of our noting. Whether it is a sugar bowl that reminds me of The Magdalen, and thereby of Holy Week and the central matters of the Christian Faith, or a bald eagle that reminds me of the United States when I see it in a documentary film or carved onto the side of a building, human beings have a unique ability to express and to comprehend complex concepts by distilling them into simple objects. Even if I myself am not creating these objects, by “reading” them I am giving them meaning beyond the obvious. Finding sugar in the sugar bowl may be a pleasant discovery, but remembering Christ when I pick up that sugar bowl affords me an opportunity which is even sweeter.
The importance of our understanding and passing on the meaning of symbols in this way cannot be overestimated. Forming these connections may get a child to think about, understand, and retain mature concepts, and then be able to recall them as an adult. This is why our creative output in things such as art and architecture, literature, film, and music, are vital elements of culture, which we ought not to ignore. When they can be seen as something more than just intrinsically pleasant, they serve as powerful tools for reminding us of who and what we are.
“The Magdalen” by Bernardino Luini (c. 1525)
National Gallery of Art, Washington