The following reflection is the first of many to be featured from participants at the 2021 GIVEN Forum. At the Forum, participants prayed with the following image, and a some felt drawn to use their gifts to share their meditations through our blog. More about the GIVEN Forum can be found at the bottom of this page.
Praying with James Tissot’s “The Ointment of the Magdalen” feels much like returning to a poem. I come with my original impressions, but there are also new details to be discovered and contemplated. I first saw this image during the GIVEN Forum 2021, and my prayer mostly focused on Mary, who is at Jesus’ feet. The first time she was there,* her sister entreated the Lord to basically “make her do something” (see Luke 10:40), and Jesus, who affirmed Mary in her being, found it more precious than her doing.
In this scene, Mary is again in the position of being, having just poured the costly ointment over Jesus’ feet. Her hair is draped over one of His feet like a veil. Of all the people in the room—who look upon her in various expressions of shock and exasperation—hers is the only hidden face. And yet her clothes are the most vivid: gold, crimson, and blue. The clothes put me in mind of our personal calls to be priest, prophet, and king, and how Mary embodies all three roles in this scene. Like the priest, she anoints Christ “for the day of my burial.” Like the prophet, she announces the call to repentance that must take place in each heart. And like the King Himself, she comes to serve, to be emptied out.
Reading the Scripture passage that accompanied this painting (John 12:1-10), I’ve often wondered what the room must have smelled like. Scripture tells us that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Not just that room, but the whole house! How long did the memory of Mary’s act of love stay in this house? How often did a sharp turn or the swish of a skirt recall that moment of outpouring?
As we moved into the prayer portion of the meditation during the Forum, one of the questions I reflected on was, “Does anything hold you back from receiving your gifts?” What came to mind was the looming largeness of my own personal sufferings and failings. Sometimes they feel even bigger than I can speak or write. When feeling this way, the temptation is to run away from God, to imagine myself beyond His grace and mercy. Mary’s position of stillness—on her knees, bent over one of Jesus’ feet—is where I want to be in these times. I want, in a word, to be.
In the painting, Christ is already half standing; perhaps he will help Mary to her feet, look into her eyes, and again say, “one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
This painting calls to mind a fruit from GIVEN—the adoration hour that took place on the last night of the Forum. I came to that adoration sunk in the abyss of my worries, the kind of worries that make the world feel like rainstorm, that make the face of Christ seem lost in shadows. But then I saw how some of the religious sisters at the Forum were praying with the young women. Hand upon shoulder, interceding for these women, helping them find rest, helping them empty their hands and hearts so God could fill them even more.
I can only imagine the feelings of Mary in the painting—overcome by a mixture of pain, shame, fear, fatigue, and also a trust and hope that the Lord would lift her from that place. That night, the sisters reminded me very tangibly of the way Christ moves. He is not shocked by us; He is all-encompassing love. He appreciates the grand gestures and the smallest of sacrifices—because in the end these are not what matter most to Him. What matters most to Him is each one of us.
And so, dear reader, how is Christ calling you to draw close? What burdens might you need to lay at His feet? What gifts is He asking you to share with the world?
*Often, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, is seen as the same person as Mary Magdalene
Behold is the fruit of the GIVEN Forum in 2016. This reflection is the fruit of praying with this image at the GIVEN 2021 Forum. For more information about GIVEN, visit their website here.
Image: Tissot, James. The Ointment of the Magdalen, watercolor on graphite paper, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/13461. Public Domain.