An heirloom is something we pass down from generation to generation, a treasure, usually imbued with stories of the mother or the grandfather or the great-aunt who cared for it first, or last. Cousin Norma, a 2nd cousin once removed, took an interest in me because of my first name, the same as her grandmother’s. A widow with no children, she decided to leave a few things to me: some old-fashioned furniture, a locket with a picture of said grandmother, and a vase.
When Cousin Norma died thirty years ago, my mother collected the small items, since I lived out of town, but before anything could be done about the large items of furniture (a secretary, an end table and a sideboard), Cousin Norma’s sister-in-law challenged the will, claiming some of the specifically-named furniture as hers, and demanding that the will be overturned.
The furniture resided in the limbo of storage, but my mother refused to return the locket or the vase.
I was vastly pregnant with my first child and therefore excused from traveling to appear in court, all of which sounds quite Victorian, as was the sideboard. Suddenly this became not the story of an elderly lady wanting to pass something along to a young namesake but instead the story of a court case in which two women, related distantly by marriage and represented by lawyers, haggled over an inheritance, a battle my mother intended to win on the principle that anyone so rude as to fight over an inheritance should never win.
When my mother came to help with the new baby, she arrived clasping the vase as a sign of our victory on all other fronts; once she gave in on the sideboard, the sister-in-law didn’t care about anything else.
Since the court appearance happened without me, the vase in particular came to tell the story of my mother, a particularly quiet person, speaking up for something she thought mattered, in this case her departed cousin’s wishes, as well as the ideal that since people shouldn’t fight over legacies, people who did fight over heirlooms shouldn’t get them.
“She fought you over that?” I was a little disparaging at first, to be honest, of the old-fashioned yet vaguely metallic object she presented to me.
“It’s lusterware!” she proclaimed, and in her genteel accent it sounded more like “lustah-weh-yah,” as if that explained everything anyone could ever want to know about it. She placed it gingerly in my hands, and told me how to polish it to a shine with a soft cloth. The vase instantly acquired a new story: my mother wanted me to have a thing of beauty, and to know how to care for it.
“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.”
An alabaster jar like that would have been handed down in a family, mother to daughter to granddaughter, an object acquired at great expense and saved for a special time, a special person. To open it meant to break it; the perfumed nard inside was intended for only one use and only on one occasion. It might be used to anoint a king, but of course that was unusual. Its more likely use was to anoint a beloved body before burial.
Somehow the woman who slipped into the room that night knew. She knew what no one in that room other than Jesus knew: he was a different kind of king, and his death was very near.
My heirloom vase reminds me of her alabaster jar, and perhaps my initial lack of comprehension over its value parallels the misunderstanding of the people gathered for dinner with Jesus that night in Bethany.
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.
Just the day before, Jesus pointed out a widow who gave two small coins, who gave her all; he spoke to the disciples of the way the stones of the Temple would fall. They did not understand: he was speaking about himself, about his own life, soon to be given, soon to be destroyed.
Somehow, the woman understood. Somehow she knew.
The disciples still did not understand, and they gave her a hard time. You could say this is yet another story about the disciples totally missing the point. But then it becomes a story not about 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.
I’ve thought a lot about how she might have felt. Worried as she walked into the leper’s house? It was no place for a proper lady to go, unaccompanied. Some wonder if this was Mary Magdalene. In John’s version of the story, she’s Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and she is safe in her own home when she anoints Jesus’ feet. But this unnamed and unidentified woman Mark writes about comes straight into the room and stands behind Jesus and anoints his head, the way a priest would anoint a king before his coronation.
That would be a wonderful story for a different ending.
She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.
It is two acts in one. She uses the beautiful nard and fills the room with its deep, sweet smell. The fragrance alone should have been enough to make the disciples realize what was coming. It indicated his death. It predicted his burial.
Sometimes I wonder why this story isn’t told more. It’s a precious heirloom that is somehow put away so carefully on a shelf that we don’t look at it often enough. What a gift she gave him! Over the days and nights that followed, he knew that one person understood. He did not face his death alone.
Just after this, Judas went to the religious leaders and offered to betray his friend and teacher. Strangely, he is the one we remember in our stories, in our liturgy. “We remember that on the night he was betrayed,” we say, every time we gather at the table. Every time we gather at the table, we remember Judas.
But for today, let us do what Jesus instructed.
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.
Today, dear woman with the alabaster jar, we remember you. We remember your good service to Jesus. We remember your courage, your determination, your gentle act of prophecy.
Today, we remember your story.