No matter how many years pass, the same photos always take me back:
• My dad, my brother, and I, riding horses in Pineville, Louisiana, looking like the cast of some Robert Redford male-bonding film.
• My wife and I having our first Christmas together in El Paso, Texas—young and simple, completely unaware of the thirty year journey in front of us (but confident, because as the Beatles had said, “All You Need is Love”).
• Me giving my daughter a piggyback ride at a Cleveland, Ohio park while she still thought I was the smartest, strongest man ever (except for Jesus).
• Some pictures I’m not even in, like the shot of two younger minister friends goofing around with a cactus in Scottsdale, Arizona—the very end of a huge cross-country trip to the southwest which sometimes felt like National Lampoon’s Vacation.
• My mother at age fourteen when she was just another random pretty girl at school, and yet at the same time the most important person in the world to four as-yet unborn children.
• My Italian grandfather, Al Vessella, whose thin, tired face all but says to me, “Johnny, I’ve got lung cancer.”
These moments have been captured forever, together with the emotional ghosts that were current at the time. No wonder we have a fascination with photos.
Sometimes I wonder if this is why the gospels affect us so much. They’re like photo albums strung together. Maybe as they wrote, the apostles themselves winced, recalling “That’s the day we argued.” “That’s when we wouldn’t listen.” “Oh, that was a great day when we finally started to understand!” Then the page turns and “Oh, that’s when we realized we didn’t understand.”
Then the album opens to where there isn’t a whole lot of folks smiling. The physical family of Jesus didn’t understand Him. The disciples were clueless. One was about to betray Him. The Pharisees were plotting His destruction. In the middle of it all a solitary figure broke open “an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at table” (Mt. 26:7).
Note it was “very expensive.” The disciples gave her grief about it, asking “Why this waste?” People are always concerned we’re doing too much for Christ. We’re too overboard. Too radical. Don’t throw your life away like this. Don’t sacrifice your happiness. After all, God wants you to be happy! She ignored all the talk, the self-serving logic, the attempts to make her feel foolish. She hadn’t thrown her happiness away. Smashing her prize possession and pouring it out on Christ was her happiness.
John says the fragrance of that ointment filled the house (12:3). It was the aroma of self-sacrifice, although comparatively speaking, it was a little one. You see, the big one was yet to come—the cross, the greatest sacrifice in the history of the world, “A fragrant offering and sacrifice” (Eph. 5:2) would soon fill heaven and earth. Somehow she saw it coming. As Jesus said, “In pouring this ointment on My body, she has done it to prepare Me for burial” (Mt. 26:12). Moved by the reality of His approaching death, all she wanted to give Him was the most valuable thing she had. He said of her, “She has done what she could” (Matt. 26:12).
The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus told the disciples who reproved her to “Leave her alone…she has done a beautiful thing to Me” (14:6). Then He went on to say, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13).
This story, unsurprisingly, now appears in all four gospels. It’s a forever moment captured between the Lord and one small believer. “I’ll remember this always,” He told her. Then with eyes of reproof to the disciples, “And so will they.”
It was a tiny thing. No crowds assembled. No power. No teachings. No miracles. No applause. In fact, the few who saw it criticized it. It utterly failed to win a popular response. You could say it was one of those non-professional poorly light photos taken with an antique Kodak Brownie. The kind of shot you might slip behind another in the back of the album.
But the Lord said, “Put it where everybody can see it, whenever they open this album. Because that was when somebody loved Me.”