Extravagance and Forgiveness

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. John 12:3

The Taj Mahal, for example. I haven’t been there, but when I see photos of the 17th century shrine of Shah Jahan to his wife Mumtaz Mahal, it heightens my perception of beauty.

View of Earth from Voyager, 1990

The Hubble telescope. Looking into space, the Deep Field, for example, unimaginably full of galaxies, changes humanity’s perception of itself. Or this photo from Voyager taken in 1990 – pale blue earth from 4 billion miles –  took my breath away when a friend sent it to me recently.

Books of Hours. I just purchased a book on The Rohan Master. Each page draws me into the the prayers not only through the deep colors and symmetry but the extraordinarily expressive emotions of sorrow, wonder, fear, tenderness. The Rohan Master, painting for a wealthy royal patron, could not have imagined that in the 21st century I’d be sharing his work via a glowing screen on my laptop.  
I was thinking about Mary’s extravagant gift of nard ointment costing a year’s salary – a self-sacrificial gift, foreshadowing Jesus’ self-sacrifice and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. (see http://www.edgeofenclosure.org )And I suddenly thought: what would I do if I won this week’s Power-Ball Lottery of 200 million dollars? I never play the lottery, but thinking of extravagance brought on this fantasy:

Dead Man Before God, Rohan Master

After taking care of my family; (paying off student loans, purchasing a modest pied-a-terre for my children to use as they flit in and out of New York City on business, setting up some health/elder care for other family members) and caring for the CHS sisters; (I’d help “green” the convent at Melrose and buy fencing and helping to establish an endowment) I’d contribute significantly to a good work, like Panzi woman’s hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other places women can heal from the brutality of war.

Nave looking West toward rose window, St. John the Divine

And then I’d do something exceedingly extravagant. I’d pour the rest of the money into the continuation of the building of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. I’d try to influence other people to do the same thing.  And for the inevitable complaint that the money should be given to the poor, I’d encourage them to contribute extravagantly themselves to Dr. Mukwege’s hospital, too.
The Cathedral continues to shape my prayer. And I would love generations of people, poor and limited to experience the richness of what the Cathedral imparts. Just as the Taj Mahal incorporates the ideals of the Paradise garden into the mausoleum’s layout, magnificent churches like our Cathedral express exteriorly the vastness, plays of light, intricacies of the soul’s architecture. Conversely, sacred architecture instructs the soul to structure beautiful open spaces and gardens for interior hospitality, for ever deepening capacities for intimacy with the divine.

Mary’s extravagant pound of pure nard. The prodigal’s father offering the fatted calf, the ring, the robe, hiring musicians and dancers to welcome home a profligate son.

Extravagant love. Elegant forgiveness. Jesus’ self-offering through horrific death on the cross. This is my blood, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Something about transcendent beauty invites the forgiveness of sins. Of the mausoleum he constructed for his dead wife, Shah Jahan wrote:
Should the guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.

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