[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 21 August 2008]
Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, when a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of the most expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he was at table. When they saw this, the disciples were indignant. “Why this waste?” they said. Mt. 26:6-9
Water is more precious than oil where my dad lives. Central California is parched and dry at this time of year, the golden brown broken only by the green stripes of the vineyards twining through the hills. Water is dragged up from 400 feet below the earth, and poured out only where it is truly needed.
Early one evening I walked the dirt roads near my dad’s farm, through olive groves and vineyards. As I reached the top of the ridge halfway between the farm and my aunt’s house, I could see a cloud of dust further down the valley. A line of heavy construction trucks wound their way slowly down the roads.
I groaned. Perched on this hillside path, I would be eating — and breathing — their dust long before I got to my aunt’s.
As the trucks lumbered up the hill, I picked my way through the thistles lining the embankment to wait them out. At least the lead driver spotted me and slowed down. The procession crept by.
As the last truck rolled past, I gasped. Gallons of water streamed from its back. Just as I began to frantically wave at the driver, the torrent stopped. What a waste, I thought, and turned to make my dusty way to my aunt’s.
But there was no roiling cloud of dust to trudge through. Instead, a damp ribbon began at the curve where the driver of the first truck had spotted me. All those gallons of water had been poured out for me, for my comfort, for an unknown women standing by the edge of an isolated road. The realization nearly brought me to my knees in the thistles.
It was a gift all out of proportion to my needs; dust does wash off after all. I had the same question as the disciples at Bethany. “Why this waste?” Wouldn’t this water have been better used on the vines?
There is something ultimately incomprehensible about using precious things with such abandon. Yet this is precisely the mystery we encounter in the sacraments.
The water that was so scarce a resource in many early Christian communities, the scant tablespoons of oil that a pound of olives would yield, bread from grain harvested and ground by hand, all spent freely, not to meet any practical physical need, but for the ease of our souls.
The abundant, overflowing grace of God is made visible.
We don’t expect to have sacramental encounters on dusty country roads, or on the Schuylkill Expressway for that matter, but in fact the world is inescapably sacramental.
As Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote in The Divine Milieu, “By means of all created things … the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”
God’s grace isn’t metered out to us in tiny portions at fixed times or hoarded behind closed doors, we dwell in it.
Not only is His grace devastatingly lavish, but it actively seeks us out, even if we try to step off the road.
God our Father, may we love You in all things and above all things and reach the joy You have prepared for us beyond all our imagining. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.