In an essay titled “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C.S. Lewis describes a scene from within a darkened shed. The sun was brilliantly shining outside, yet from the inside only a small sunbeam could be seen through a crack at the top of the door. Everything was pitch-black except for the prominent beam of light, by which he could see flecks of dust floating about. Writes Lewis:
“I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving in the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”(1)
Each time I come to the gospel accounts of the woman with the alabaster jar, I notice something similar. “Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks, as if he is speaking as much to me the reader as he is to the guests around the table. With a jar of costly perfume, she had anointed the feet of Christ with fragrance and tears. She then endured the criticism of those around her because she alone saw the one in front of them. While the dinner crowd was sitting in the dark about Jesus, the woman was peering in the light of understanding. What she saw invoked tears of recognition, sacrifice and much love. Gazing along the beam and at the beam are quite different ways of seeing.
The late 17th century poet George Herbert once described prayer as “the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.” At those words I picture the woman with her broken alabaster jar, wiping the dusty, fragrant feet of Christ with her hair. Pouring out the expensive nard, she seems to pour out her soul. Fittingly, Herbert concludes his grand description of prayer as “something understood.”
The woman with the alabaster jar not only saw the Christ when others did not, Christ saw her when others could not see past her powerless categories. “Do you see this woman?” Jesus asked while the others were questioning her actions past and present. “I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much.”(2) Her soul’s cry was heard; she herself was understood.
There are many ways of looking at Jesus: good man, historical character, interesting teacher, one who sees, one who hears, one who loves. At any point, we could easily walk away feeling like we have seen everything we need to see, when in fact we may have seen very little. The risk of looking again may well change everything.
(1) C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212-215.
(2) Luke 7:44-47.
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