Worship As Broken Flask People

This piece is part of syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. You can read the original piece at https://www.yalelogos.com/home/worship-as-broken-flask-people.


All four biblical accounts of Jesus Christ’s life on earth contain the story of a woman who anointed Jesus with ointment. The narrative starts at a dinner party in the town of Bethany:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany... So they gave a dinner for him there… As he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head… and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. - John 12:1-3 and Mark 14:3

This woman’s name was Mary—not the mother of Jesus but the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Mary’s costly, extravagant act is praised by Jesus as “a beautiful thing” and remembered throughout Christian tradition as an incredible example of humility and love. She considered the worth of her flask of pure nard (valued between $20,000 to $30,000 today) in comparison to her love for Jesus, then broke that flask right open. [1] Her act takes on even greater significance when the effect is described: the entire house “was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” This appeal to scent is based in the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible which detail the intended relationship between God, the universe, and humanity. A central aspect of humanity’s relationship with God was animal sacrifice, and the Jewish nation was instructed to “burn the whole ram on the altar” because “it is a pleasing aroma… to the Lord” (Exodus 29:18). The gospel of John highlights the fragrance of the perfume to indicate that Mary’s anointing of Jesus was not only a model act of humility and love but a rightly performed sacrifice and true worship that pleased God. In this situation, Mary got it absolutely right.

Perhaps we are meant to relate with Mary to follow her in beautiful worship of our Creator. But as I read this story now, I do not find myself relating with Mary. I feel much more like the broken alabaster flask: meant to protect something precious inside but in its brokenness letting that precious oil run all over. For example, I was on my way to get lunch last week. The path I typically take to my dining spot crosses through a bus stop where some homeless people whom I know gather. I was in a hurry and contemplated, “should I change my route to avoid seeing them and getting dragged into a conversation?” As I recognized the thought, remorse for my thrifty love filled me. I turned to Jesus and asked for forgiveness and turned to take my typical path. But even still my thoughts were whirling. “Am I too conspicuous? I hope nobody whom I know sees… would that be hypocritical?” This nervous consideration continued even after I passed the bus stop undeterred. I didn’t even notice that my acquaintances weren’t there. Later that night in my room, I remembered my self-conscious thoughts that day. I turned over on my bed to pray, to ask God for greater humility and love. I wanted to forget myself in the simplicity of loving Him and all those He places around me. An hour later, I groggily opened my eyes and realized that I had fallen asleep mid-prayer. I was so frustrated! I felt so weak!

I want to worship like Mary. I want to worship God so that the fragrance of my sacrifice spreads to all those around me, but I find that my heart is brittle, my mind easily distracted, and my attention often turns outward to the approval of others instead of inwards to the dwelling place of God (John 14:23). I must often repent of letting my words tear others down, for not seeing the image of God in the homeless person at the bus stop, for hearing God’s voice and failing to respond. Like David in Psalm 31, “I have become like a broken vessel” that cannot even protect the precious gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells inside of me. 

I desire to be made into an unbroken flask. As a Christian, I recognize that God already has made me whole and unblemished in Christ. He has healed my traumas, repaired my thought patterns, and grown my love in ways I once thought impossible. He has shown me so much grace. But I easily feel shame and inadequacy when I cannot do even the good things I want to do. Recently when I felt this way, God taught me again the incredible extent of His grace. “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:9a). This timely reminder showed me a mistake in my understanding of the story at Bethany: it was good for the alabaster flask to be broken! The unmarred flask might seem more beautiful, but Jesus was only worshipped once the flask was broken. The ointment had to be poured out for the house to be filled with its pleasant fragrance. I have come to understand the flask’s brokenness as the sober recognition of weakness in which God’s power is made perfect. By His grace, we do not have to remain in shame for our sin. Instead, we can repent at Jesus’s feet, show our love, declare our weakness, and receive His power. 

Mary certainly declared her weakness. She abandoned the pretense of beautiful form and unbound her hair (going against ancient propriety) and got on the floor and wiped Jesus’s sweaty, callused feet with her hair. [2] And Mary was certainly filled with God’s power. A few days earlier when Jesus was drawing near to Bethany, He told his disciples for the third time that He would be condemned to death, die, and “after three days rise” from death to “ransom many” to eternal life (Mark 10:33-34, 45). The disciples did not understand, and James and John even asked to enter into this same situation with Jesus! But of Mary, Jesus says: “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matthew 26:12). Mary had powerful insight into the approaching death of Jesus (whether she consciously recognized it or not) and performed a worshipful act in agreement with the cadence of all history. In this amazing story, I see the power of God filling up a woman who displayed her weakness so her beautiful sacrifice would be remembered in connection to the greatest sacrificial act: God dying on a cross to pay for my sin and yours.

I now recognize that Mary too was a broken flask! Out of the love she had for her Lord, she let herself be broken so the dirty floor and the upper room and the kitchen could be flooded with the pleasing fragrance. Mary gave her most precious possession to the Lord and worshipped in her weakness as a broken flask person. I thank God for His grace, and that by “[Jesus’s] sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14, NIV). I thank God that He gives power for weakness, and until the Day of full perfection, we can follow in Mary’s beautiful example to worship our Lord as broken flask people.

Daniel is a junior at Yale studying chemistry.

[1] Ottuh, John Arierhi. “Measurement, Evaluation and Exegesis of the Value of the Ointment Poured on Jesus in Mark 14:3-9: A Contemporary Application in Nigeria.” American International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences 11, no. 1 (July 2015): 69–76. 

[2] Jeremias, Joachim. “The Parables of Jesus.” London: SCM Press, 1954, 101–102. 

All Biblical quotations are from the ESV translation unless otherwise indicated.

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