One of my favourite traditions that we’ve developed as a family is celebrating half-birthdays. There’s no party or presents, just cake and candles, the family singing “happy half-birthday”, and a girl grinning in surprise because she hadn’t done the math herself.
I love making cake almost as much as I like eating it, so usually the effort to make it happen isn’t onerous. But on this occasion the mental load was high and the emotional reserves were low, so I did something that old Maja never could have: I just bought a thing. No hand-crafted cake for this girl’s half-birthday, it was a short-dated trifle that I grabbed from the supermarket in between running errands. While she was out of the room, we whipped it out of the back of the fridge and I hastily (and badly) stuck in some pre-used candles.
Not a thing of beauty, and I couldn’t eat a spoonful, but she loved it.
As a recovering perfectionist, that crappy trifle was a sign of real personal growth for me. And, believe it or not, it was prompted by my reading of Mark 14:3-9 that morning.
Yes, your devotional reading of Scripture can guide your dessert choices — this is practical theology.
Mark writes of the few days before Jesus’ death when he’s staying in Bethany, and one night at a party at Simon’s, Mary brings out a jar of crazily expensive perfume and pours the whole thing over Jesus’ head. I’ve heard this Scripture preached many times before as illustrating the extravagance of Mary’s love, her whole-hearted commitment in giving up her most precious item, laden with symbolic meaning. But what caught my eye this time was verse 8:
She did what she could.
Yes it was an extravagant act of love, but it’s sandwiched within this discussion of unmeetable needs and unavoidable tragedy.
Jesus tells the miserly grumblers that this side of new creation poverty is always going to be a problem, but he also tells them that he is not long for this world. There’s a tension on either side for Mary. She would have known about the unrelenting poverty that people faced and felt unequal to making any real change. But I suspect that she also knew that something terrible was soon to happen to her beloved Jesus. She had listened at his feet, and I can imagine her picking up those hints of death and loss soon to come — death and loss that she was already all too familiar with. In the midst of all that, what could she do? She couldn’t fix either problem.
Sometimes when we feel unable to make it all right, we do nothing at all. If we can’t meet the need, tick the box, or hit the goal, we don’t even do what we can.
But Mary, she did what she could.
That Spirit-prompted act of anointing was more meaningful than she probably first understood. She did something with what she had, and it turned out be the kind of thing that Jesus said would be remembered everywhere. But I don’t think she knew that when she first started out. She intuited a need, and even though she couldn’t meet it fully, even if it felt like a token act, she did something, and it turned out to be more than enough.
Now, my substandard half-birthday trifle is not an act of love that will be remembered throughout time. And I hope that the next half-birthday will be celebrated with something that reveals more effort and planning. But in that moment the option was do nothing, or do something imperfect.
I chose to do something imperfect, and turns out, it was more than OK.