Tag Archives: Lent

A Lenten Facebook Fast

Tomorrow being the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, for the next six weeks or so many Christians around the world prepare themselves spiritually for the sacrifice that Christ made on Good Friday, when we believe He died for our sins, rising from the dead on Easter Sunday.  In keeping with the penitential and sacrificial nature of these weeks, many will give up things they enjoy for this period.  They will do so to try to find a way to suffer a bit, and reflect better on Christ’s own suffering, even if only in a small way.

This year I’ve decided to give up Facebook for Lent, something I’ve not done before, but have seen others do over the years. I am sure the withdrawal symptoms will be difficult, although the only real practical issue, i.e. blog publication across my social media platforms, is handled through the WordPress app. Thus, even though I won’t be “on” Facebook, posts will continue to appear each weekday.

I’ve also decided to take a slightly moderated view of the old “no reprieve” versus “Sundays don’t count” debate.  There is an age-old argument among my fellow Catholics as to whether one can return to one’s “give-ups” on Sundays during Lent.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops answers the question for us thusly:

Q. So does that mean that when we give something up for Lent, such as candy, we can have it on Sundays?

A. Apart from the prescribed days of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole Time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.

Sounds a bit like they’re dodging the question, doesn’t it? In truth, there’s good reason for such careful language, as we shall see.

Those of you giving up a food you like for Lent know how difficult that can be. One Lent I gave up coffee, which was pretty brutal, though perhaps the worst food give-up for me was when I gave up potatoes. I went so far as to check the labels of foods I bought to make sure there was no potato starch or the like in them.  Turns out we use potatoes in prepared foods in this country almost as much as we use corn-derived products, by the way.

However the danger withsuch practices is getting to the point with our Lenten give-ups that we risk creating a compulsion out of what is supposed to be a pious act.  In their answer to the question about Sundays in Lent, the bishops suggest that we have to make our own decisions, with respect to whatever practice we take on during this season.  There is no requirement that one even have a “give-up”, after all, even if it is encouraged.  The rules on these are not imposed from without, but rather from within: this is a time for personal growth, not a contest to see who can suffer the most.

Even when giving rules for practices which are in fact required during Lent, the Church does not impose a draconian standard.  For example, although fasting for adults is mandated for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, that rule does not apply to the seriously ill, pregnant, or those with a medical condition requiring them to eat at certain times (e.g. diabetics.)  Manual laborers are also exempt under certain circumstances, since no one wants an ironworker on the 49th floor of a construction site to become light-headed from not eating.  Consideration is even given to those who are required to attend a social or business function, who cannot get out of said event without causing serious offense or negative repercussions.

When it comes to Facebook, which I use  a lot – and not only for fun, either – it will be hard for me to adjust to daily life without it.  It is certainly not my only outlet for connecting with a wider world, but it is an important way for me to keep up with what is going on with my family, close friends, and local contacts.  It has also introduced me to, or allowed me to assist, many people I might not otherwise know or have stayed in touch with.

As a result, I’ve decided to go with a good piece of advice from a fellow Papist on the Sunday question, which is to take a half an hour before going to Mass on Sundays during Lent to check in on Facebook.  Not to goof around, chat, or make new Bitstrips cartoons – more’s the pity – but to see whether anyone needs some help or encouragement.  The hard-core Catholics among my readers will no doubt think this is a sign of weakness on my part, while the more laid-back Catholics will think this is too formulaic.

Yet such attitudes prove the point as to why the bishops are careful when it comes to the ins and outs of proscribing how to make Lenten sacrifices.  We are each called to sacrifice in our own way, not to prove what a good Christian we are, but to try to be more like Christ.  After all, even in His pain and suffering on His way to Calvary, and while hanging on the Cross, Christ took the time to try to comfort and give support to other people, whether it was the women of Jerusalem, St. Dismas (the “Good Thief”), or His Mother and St. John.

Truthfully, I can’t come anywhere near that level of sacrifice or help to others. My “give-up” is absolutely nothing but an insignificant little drop of rain in the ocean.  Yet I do it because I love, and because I want to love better, as He did.  Hopefully, that will be the end result of this Lenten experience.



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Law in the Balance

This is the last in my series of posts – though there will be a very simple post tomorrow – in which we have looked at the Passion Narrative in St. Mark’s Gospel in the context of broader social and cultural issues. I have tried to do my best to look at this text during Holy Week, the most sacred time of the year for Christians, and take some themes or ideas from it which I believe are worth the consideration of both my Christian and Non-Christian readers. On Monday we looked at the importance of studying symbolism in the creative spheres; on Tuesday we considered what it means to be naked; and yesterday we looked at the role of women in society.

Today we are going to look at something which is very much in the news these days, but then for that matter always seems to be in the news, and that is the rule of law. No, I am not going to discuss the constitutionality of Obamacare, or the HHS mandate.  I will leave that to those Constitutional law scholars who regularly argue before the Supreme Court, and thus actually know what they are talking about, rather than pay any attention to those who simply talk about it on television or in magazine articles.

Instead, my goal today is to make you a bit uncomfortable, if I can.

If we turn to what happened after Jesus’ Crucifixion in St. Mark’s account, which you can read here, we are told that after He had breathed His last on Friday afternoon, there was a very important question to be answered by His Jewish friends: was there time to take His body down and bury it before the Sabbath?

Joseph of Arimathea,
a distinguished member of the council,
who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God,
came and courageously went to Pilate
and asked for the body of Jesus.
Pilate was amazed that he was already dead.
He summoned the centurion
and asked him if Jesus had already died.
And when he learned of it from the centurion,
he gave the body to Joseph.
Having bought a linen cloth, he took him down,
wrapped him in the linen cloth,
and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.

Before we get into a consideration of what Joseph did here, we need to take a step back and look at the issue of the law, for the law is inextricably linked with what St. Mark is describing.

It is hard for me to look at what St. Mark reports without thinking like a lawyer. The legal mind, as my readers are no doubt well-aware, differs somewhat from the rational mind, although it has its own, at times cruel, logic to it. The lawyer works within a closed universe, wherein certain types of proofs which might make a difference in an argument between one friend and another may not even be considered within the context of a legal argument. It is important to understand this, because such an alternate universe has its own rules and ways of working, which do not always correspond to what we may and may not do in our private lives.

While St. Mark tells us what he himself witnessed, or was told later by others, remember that so far as we know, he was not a lawyer.  And as a lawyer, I sometimes find reading the Bible – not just St. Mark’s Gospel – to be frustrating to the part of my brain that has been trained to think as a lawyer.  I know from experience that when I am trying to put together an argument for court, for example, in that universe I need to ask certain questions and obtain certain answers to those questions which may be completely separate from real life in all of its messiness, if I am to convince the court to rule the way I believe it ought to rule.  So even though St. Mark is writing an account of a legal process, he is writing it as a layman would write it, not as a lawyer would write it: he is trying to persuade the reader’s immortal soul, not the mind of a temporal judge.

That being said, keep in mind that Jesus went through proceedings in two separate legal universes, in order for Him to be executed.  He was first condemned by religious authority, and he was subsequently condemned by civil authority. Had He been arrested in a modern, Western legal system He would have had certain protections and rights; if He had been, as someone who knows his way around the appellate system I could cite an almost infinite list of grounds for appeal from His death sentence. Be that as it may, and whatever one thinks of the actions of those such as the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate, He was not simply chased down by a mob and lynched, vigilante-style.

Turning then to a deeper reflection on how the law applies to the events described by St. Mark, one of the things we can all recognize is that Jesus taught His Disciples that people in need come before the law, but the law must still be upheld whenever possible. He was routinely criticized, for example, for healing sick people on the Sabbath, because in the mind of the more literal of the religious leaders of His day, this was working on the Sabbath, which was prohibited by the Mosaic law.  Jesus rejected this interpretation, and took the view that it was more important to act, when you found yourself in a situation where someone needed your help, even if it meant working on the Sabbath.

Similarly, in parables such as the very familiar one of “The Good Samaritan”, Jesus challenged His listeners to consider which was more important: proscribed ritual or another in urgent, life-or-death need? The wounded Jewish traveler on the side of the road is not touched by the observant Jewish leaders, who do not want to become ritually unclean, and thereby become unable to serve God in the Temple. Instead, the traveler is aided by someone whom the Jews considered at best a heretic, and at worst an enemy, a resident from what is today the West Bank.  [N.B. Now THERE is an interesting geographical tidbit to chew on.]

At the same time however, in the Gospels Jesus repeatedly reminds His followers that they must follow the law, whether as promulgated by the religious authorities or by the civil authorities, so long as in so doing they do not lose sight of the big picture. A mistake often made by those on the left is looking at Jesus as some sort of early anarchist, forgetting that He commanded His followers to obey the rulings of the Pharisees on religious matters, and of course rendering unto Caesar what is properly Caesar’s under the civil codes. This fact suggests that one needs to find a way to balance out what is intrinsically good and what is unquestionably legal, what is beneficial and what is permissible.

In the passage quoted above about the actions taken by Joseph of Arimathea, the point is that this member of the Sanhedrin does BOTH. He rushes to provide a last act of compassion toward his friend Jesus, but he does so recognizing that the Mosaic law which he follows gives him a limited amount of time in which to act.  He also recognizes that he cannot simply take the body down, because he is legally required to consult the appropriate civil authority, i.e. Pilate himself, before he can do anything, even if Joseph personally believed that Jesus had been wrongly condemned.

That in itself must have been very difficult to do, as St. Mark observes.  Joseph could conceivably have been arrested by the Romans for seeking to encourage sedition, for example.  Once Pilate’s legal permission was obtained, can imagine that there must have been a flurry of activity on the part of Joseph and those who assisted him, to try to get Jesus buried before nightfall.  Though as it turned out, the fact that they could not complete all of the rituals normally mandated before a Jewish burial is in fact why the women come to the tomb at sunup on Sunday morning, so that they could finish what they and Joseph did not have time to do on Friday evening.

Joseph gives us a good example of the personal courage that anyone, be they Jew, Christian, or nothing in particular, ought to do when it comes to acting out of compassion in balance with legal authority.  The mere existence of a law cannot be an excuse for exercising the so-called “Nuremberg defense”, when it comes to how we treat one another. Just because something is perfectly legal, does not mean that we are excused from helping other people, or that we are free to harm them, when we are put in a legal position to do so.

At the same time, if we do not obey law and order when it acts to provide structure and avoid chaos, then we need to question ourselves as to whether we acting out of compassion for others, or whether we are really acting out of selfishness. A healthy and vibrant civilization is only possible when human beings voluntarily impose certain limits on how we interact with one another.  Yet it only survives if its members recognize that a balancing act, or indeed an outright change if the law proves to be unjust, is sometimes necessary.

“Joseph of Arimathea Seeking Out Pontius Pilate”
by James Tissot (c. 1886-1894)
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York

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Consider the Ladies

We are continuing on with our series of posts relating some of the details of the events of Holy Week to wider cultural issues, so that I can speak to both my Christian and Non-Christian readers in a way which, I hope, will encourage them to do a bit more lateral or creative thinking.  Today we do as Abigail Adams once directed her husband, and consider the ladies.  The ladies always need our consideration, of course, but I would like us to reflect a little bit on what very tough things the members of the fairer sex can be, when they set their minds to it.

In St. Mark’s Passion Narrative, which you can read here, he tells us the following detail about the scene on Golgotha, where Jesus is crucified:

There were also women looking on from a distance.
Among them were Mary Magdalene,
Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome.
These women had followed him when he was in Galilee
and ministered to him.
There were also many other women
who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

Whether or not you are a Christian, this passage gives us an opportunity to think about the role of women in society more deeply, and I believe there are lessons to be learned here, for both Christian and Non-Christian alike.

It would be helpful to keep in mind that we need to view the scene described above not with modern eyes, which most of us in the Western world employ with respect to how we look at the role of women in society, but rather with the eyes of an ancient Semitic people living in the Eastern Mediterranean. In all four of the canonical Gospels, we are made very much aware by their (male) authors that when the crucial moment came, all of Jesus’ male disciples ran away after he was arrested. And yet apart from St. John, when Jesus is actually executed by gruesome, public torture, His female disciples are the ones who are there, witnessing the horror of his death.

We may not think of this now, because we have grown so accustomed to works of art or films depicting Jesus’ Death, but this kind of event was not something which these women would have been accustomed to attending or viewing. Ancient Jerusalem was not Ancient Rome: Jewish women in Israel would not have gone to an arena to watch men and beasts tear each other to pieces or to see men executed for entertainment, as some of their pagan sisters might have done in Italy. And yet here these Jewish women are, unknowingly about to become the first Christians in a few days’ time, watching every drop of blood fall and being unable to do anything but stand nearby and weep, as the only support they can offer to Jesus and to each other.

It is interesting to note the presence of a disciple named “Salome” at the Crucifixion. Traditionally, she has been identified as the wife of Zebedee, and the mother of St. James and St. John. However when I was listening to the reading of St. Mark’s Passion this past Sunday, I could not help but pose myself the hypothetical question, unsupported as it is by any evidence whatsoever: what if she were the same, infamous Salome from earlier in St. Mark’s Gospel?

For those unfamiliar with the story of Salome and The Baptist, St. Mark tells us:

Herodias’ own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl, “Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her, “I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request, “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.

As a caveat, I should point out that St. Mark does not use the name “Salome” in his Gospel, it is identified elswhere; and the name itself was not uncommon in Judea at the time of Christ. For example, besides the aforementioned disciple and princess, we know that there was a pre-Roman Jewish Queen of that name, who was the last independent female ruler of Judea. In addition, the sister of King Herod the Great, who ruled Judea at the time Jesus was born, was also named Salome, and that same Herod had a daughter whom he named for his sister.

Yet imagine if Salome, the girl who basically tried to seduce her stepfather on her mother’s orders, and who received a decapitated head which she herself brought to her mother, had undergone a conversion? What if she had decided to leave the hedonistic, perverted, and luxurious life she was being brought up in, to try to make amends for her part in the death of St. John the Baptist? What if she had become a follower of Christ, and a supporter of His ministry?

I do not want to delve too deeply into this sort of speculation.  However it is interesting to consider the possibility that if Salome had guts enough to carry about a human head on a platter in the service of evil, she probably would have had the guts to stand at the foot of the Cross and pity Jesus, and provide comfort to His Mother, in the service of good.  For women, in case you were not aware of the fact, are made of very tough stuff indeed.

Another woman whom St. Mark describes at the Crucifixion alongside Salome, i.e. The Magdalen, we already thought a bit about on Monday.  However, going back to her role for a moment, whenever I think of her I cannot help but remember the fictional exchange which takes place in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, “Jesus of Nazareth” when, after the Resurrection, Anne Bancroft, playing the role of Mary of Magdala, comes to tell the Apostles that Christ has risen from the dead and that she has seen Him.  They ignore her, and tell her that she is having a woman’s fantasy.  Bancroft in her inimitable way lashes back, “A fantasy? Was His DEATH a fantasy?” – pointing out that she was there for Jesus, along with the other women, and Simon Peter and the others were not.

Whenever contemporary society tries to redefine the nature of male and female, common sense speaks up and tells us that certain natural differences remain between the sexes.  A disordered attempt to try to re-engineer human nature does none of us any good for, paradoxically, it denies human nature in the process.  History has shown us that women can be as resolute as men, and on occasions such as that described by St. Mark even more so, when it comes down to making difficult decisions or facing unpleasant circumstances.  There is no need for them to try to behave like men, when they can behave as themselves.

Therefore rather than try to make women into something they are not, we are better-served by remembering that as our fellow human beings, women ought to serve as a reminder to us men that oftentimes it is they, rather than we, who have repeatedly shown that they are capable of making the kind of tough decisions which many of their brethren would shrink from.  This should not be misinterpreted as a statement that women are superior to men, but rather taken for what it is: a recognition that sometimes it is the case that they go through things which many men would find incapable of even attempting.  St. Mark clearly recognizes this, just as he admitted in his humility that he had been stripped naked in his attempt to follow Jesus, and had failed.

Even if in the end, we speak here of two Salomes, rather than a single individual, I do not think that any reasonable, intelligent member of either sex would deny the fact that whoever this Salome at the foot of the Cross was, she proved herself to be a far better friend to Jesus than the men whom he kept closest to him during His preaching and teaching.

Detail from “The Crucifixion” by Andrea Mantegna (1457-1459)
The Louvre, Paris

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The Naked Truth

Continuing on from yesterday, when we talked about Mary Magdalen and sugar bowls, today I’d like to talk about being naked.

Now that I have your attention, I hope that you will continue reading. Remember that this is Holy Week for Christians, such as this scrivener, as we approach Easter Sunday, and I am looking at some of the details from the Passion Narrative contained in the Gospel of St. Mark, which you can read here. Hopefully, I am doing so in a way which will cause both my Christian and Non-Christian readers alike to pause and reflect on some larger, cultural issues raised herein.

We read in St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane about the following incident after the Apostles all took to their heels:

And they all left him and fled.
Now a young man followed him
wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body.
They seized him,
but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.

Traditionally, this unfortunate young fellow has been identified as being St. Mark himself. Now, for a Jewish youth like St. Mark – assuming that this was he – to admit in his writing that he was involuntarily stripped naked must have been a very difficult thing, indeed. While the pagans of his day may have had fewer qualms about nudity, for an observant Jew like St. Mark to publicly admit that this happened to him must have been mortifying.

So why did St. Mark tell us about this rather embarrassing moment? On one hand, such an inclusion lends a greater degree of authenticity to St. Mark’s account of what happened. In all four of the Gospels, we often find what we might call “throwaway details”, which do not really appear to have anything to do with the story they are telling, but give us the sense that the writer himself either personally witnessed these events, or they were told to him by those who had personally witnessed them. I would refer you for example to St. John’s Gospel at 21:24, where we are told: “It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” However I think there is something else which we ought to consider here, Christian and Non-Christian alike, and that is our attitude toward being exposed.

I had to visit a specialist this morning due to a knee problem. While the results turned out to be much better than I had feared, the process of putting myself into the doctor’s hands was something I found mortifying, even though I did not have to completely strip off my clothing. Although the ultimate goal of the examination was beneficial, the partial disrobing, the poking and prodding and manipulation, were all embarrassing. Of course, neither the physician nor myself were doing this for kicks, if you’ll pardon the expression, but there was still an element of exposing oneself in the context of acknowledging a weakness that felt slightly humiliating.

Within the Judeo-Christian paradigm which formed the basis for Western Civilization, or what remains of that civilization at present, nudity is something that holds a somewhat different meaning than it did for the Classical Civilization which it supplanted. The ancient world celebrated physical beauty, particularly when displayed in the altogether, as a symbol of divinity and perfection, and Western Civilization did not deny this – Adam and Eve, for example, have appeared, starkers, in Western art from the very beginning.  However, there was a shift in the understanding of exposure, for while recognizing beauty Western culture simultaneously recognized that exposure was also a sign of weakness.

Despite what you may have read or been taught to the contrary, human nature has not really changed very much over the centuries. It is not at all unusual that human nudity is a trigger for thoughts related to the act of sexual reproduction. Our species does not put on the type of visual display that many members of the animal kingdom do during the year, in order to signal their readiness to mate, by changing colors or the like. For the pagans this was not necessarily a problem, since their ideas about human sexuality were often focused on self-gratification as being of paramount importance, in a kind of proto-Darwinian state.

For those in the Judeo-Christian community, on the other hand, who ultimately supplanted the pagans in the Western world, nudity was not only a potential catalyst for things like adultery, promiscuity, and resulting disease and illegitimacy, it was also paradoxically an opportunity to care for those in need who might otherwise receive nothing. Thus, two of Noah’s sons cover him up when he is naked and unable to care for himself, and Christ tells His Disciples that if they clothe the naked, they are clothing Him. Selfishness, whether in terms of sexual gratification, laughing at the expense of others, or maintaining one’s material comforts, was replaced by the virtue of self-sacrifice.

Western Civilization came to understand as a result of the Judeo-Christian influence that a healthy attitude toward nudity has nothing to do with the amount of bare flesh exposed, and everything to do with the intent of the individual.  For example, a pop star who is technically completely clothed while performing on stage, may be more scandalously clad than someone completely or nearly naked at the doctor’s office. The intent of the former is malicious, in advocating a selfish, personal gratification, where the needs of the self come before the needs of others, while the intent of the latter is either completely innocent, or at the very least morally neutral.

In recognizing human weakness, Western Civilization changed the way that we behave toward one another, and ultimately did so for the greater good of all mankind. It brought about a shift in the attitude toward how human beings were to treat one another sexually, so as to create a more stable society, but it also established both the mindset and the institutions necessary to care for those who had nothing – people whom the pagans would have looked down upon, abused, or completely ignored. Those who would argue that we would be better off if we all went about naked are missing out on a very critical point: it is in the self-sacrifice of clothing, both by those who wear it and those who give it, that Western culture has been able to take the focus away from advocating selfishness, and toward advocating self-control, good judgement, and charity, in order to build up a more equitable society.

Returning to where we began, a pagan would not have found what happened to St. Mark to be anything other than a source of amusement, if not worse. We however recognize that in the stripping away of his dignity, St. Mark was humiliated, and we feel sorry for him: he is meant to be an object of our pity, not our scorn, for what he went through in trying to find out what was happening to his friend, Jesus, as He was arrested and hauled away.  We would hope never to find ourselves in that position.

The human body may indeed be a beautiful thing, but we need to remember that it is the intent or the context in which that body is presented to us that we prove our mettle as the inheritors of centuries or Western culture, or whether we are simply neo-pagans who value our own self-gratification above all other things.

“Christ in The Garden of Gethsemane” by Arkhip Kuindzhi (1901)
Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg

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A Little Sugar in My Bowl

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

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