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A Reflection from the 2019 Cathedral Retreat

The Golden Chapel and the Alabaster Jar of Oil

Her precious alabaster jar lay empty. The last amber coloured contents dripped from its broken elegant neck and stained the dusty floor. The disciples were aghast as rivulets of the expensive perfumed oil rolled down Jesus’ head, his beard glistened in the flicker of the pottery lamps. A sweet earthy fragrance, reminiscent of the oil’s Himalayan origins, filled the room. What was she doing, this woman? Didn’t she know that this was a waste of money…selling it could feed the poor the disciples exclaimed. Yet Jesus did not admonish her, instead he said to them, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

As I sat on the steps of the Bishop Selwyn Chapel reading about this remarkable anointing of Jesus in Bethany, an elderly man rounded the corner on a bicycle with a young girl in tow. He began explaining to her that the church had spent an “enormous amount of money” on a gold cross and a gold chapel instead of giving the money to the poor. His tirade continued for quite a while. The correlation to my reading was uncanny. How was I going to respond?

Jesus responded to the disciples in Bethany by saying that what the woman had done was a “beautiful thing”. Did the aromatic oil lift the spirit of Jesus as he contemplated his looming agony on the cross? To him, although the action was extravagant in the eyes of the disciples, it was not a waste! For us today, the memory of the woman and the alabaster jar of perfume lives on in the Gospels just as Jesus said it would. It forces us to struggle with the issues of poverty, the church’s response and the issue of our response to the deity of Christ, our redeemer.

The identity of Christ justified her actions. Does it justify our actions in building this beautiful building behind me in His name? Our chapel, though criticised for being an extravagant waste of money, I believe, is a building honouring a God who is worth more than gold leaf. Just like the woman, many contributed sacrificially to the cost of its build because they saw it is a beautiful place to enrich their worship. A space to uplift the spirits, to discover the aura of Christ and contemplate his redemption. We offer this space not just for ourselves but also as a beautiful place for all to worship His glorious name in song, prayer and supplication. To feed on Him and regain the strength to enable us to go out and serve others.

Sadly, I can’t help thinking that the critical old man on his bicycle, by focussing on the money, was missing out on the real beauty of the chapel and its reason for being there. Yes, we will always have the poor with us and as the scriptures remind us, we must continue to open wide our hands to the needy and to the poor. When we sit in the chapel and marvel at its aura and beauty we must not stop there. Just as the fragrant alabaster jar of oil pointed to the sacrifice of Christ so we too must remember that the walls of glass invite us out into the world, nourished and ready to point others to the cross of Christ and His love and redemption for us all.

How sad though that the old man didn’t see the glass walls also as an invitation to come in and experience the wonder of a Christ who gave His all for him. More to the point, was I prepared to invite this seemingly unpleasant man into this sacred space?

Matthew 26:6-13 Deuteronomy: 15:7-11

By Merle Abbot

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