The moment that Ani Pennings saw the photo of three-year-old Pepito on her adoption agency’s listing, she knew it in her heart: this is our son. She showed the photo to her husband, Jeff, who agreed, “Yes, that’s our son.” Pepito’s face, though peaceful, already bore traces of the illnesses he endured. He was born in a remote area of Ethiopia, and from his birth, he suffered from hydrocephalus, which went untreated for eighteen months. This led to epilepsy, cerebral palsy, blindness, and a diagnosis list a mile long.
A Treasured Life. Ani and Jeff knew that caring for Pepito would mean suffering. They began to prepare and ask the Lord to give them the grace they would need. They also knew that Pepito’s time on earth would be limited, and that no matter how much time the Lord gave them with him, it would never feel like enough.
Suffering did indeed come, and swiftly. From the day they met Pepito in Ethiopia in 2015, they watched him experience muscle spasms and seizures. After they brought him home to Michigan, Ani cared for him through many surgery recoveries, spent weeks by his side in the hospital as he agonized through pancreatitis, and stayed up countless nights sitting with him on the couch, holding him so that he could breathe comfortably when he had a virus.
That is not to say Pepito’s life was all misery. He loved his parents and three siblings and enjoyed all the little events of daily life with them—basketball, soccer, school Masses, even stadium cleanup after a football game. He went camping with them all over Michigan, road-tripping to Boston and Maine, and traveling to Mexico. Pepito was with his family for eight short years before the Lord called him home.
In the eyes of many, Pepito’s life would be considered a waste. He completed no education, won no prizes, made no notable contributions in any field of human endeavor, and was incapable of serving or providing for others. Because of his inability to speak and see, most normal forms of human interaction were out of bounds for him. The enormous investment that his parents made in him would also be considered by many to be a waste. Why not spend their energies on a child with a better prognosis, or someone who would at least grow to adulthood and enjoy a full life?
Yet in the eyes of the Lord, Pepito’s life was unimaginably precious. It held a value that cannot be measured only by numerical calculations. Not one ounce of the love, time, attention, or expense lavished on him by his family was a waste.
A Model of Love. There is a woman in the Gospels who understood this. She is not a prominent figure, nor is she, as far as we know, one of the holy women present at Jesus’ cross and empty tomb. She is mentioned in only a single episode. In all but one of the Gospel accounts, she is not even named. And yet her one recorded interaction with Jesus is so full of significance that Jesus himself made it an inseparable part of the proclamation of his good news until the end of history: “Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9).
From the time I came to know the Lord myself, I have been deeply moved by the story of this woman, whose simple gesture of love is a model for disciples of Jesus. Scripture tells us that as Jesus sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of a very costly ointment. She broke the flask and poured it over his head.
The Gospel is sparing in the details, but we can imagine the scene. Jesus, the honored rabbi from Nazareth, has been invited to a formal dinner party along with his disciples. The host, “Simon the leper,” may have been among those healed by Jesus (Mark 14:3). In fact, he must have been healed in some way, since no one would have come to dine at the home of a ritually unclean person carrying a deadly contagious disease.
Without Counting the Cost. In the midst of the festivities, an uninvited person suddenly walks in. She is carrying an alabaster flask of pure nard, an aromatic oil made from a root native to India. We later find out that the nard is breathtakingly expensive, worth a year’s wages—in our terms, tens of thousands of dollars.
But the dinner guests are oblivious to the true significance of the occasion. As they look on in stunned indignation, the woman breaks (literally, shatters) the flask and pours the oil on the head of Jesus. In that society, as in ours, such a disruption by an uninvited person would be at best awkward, and likely a serious embarrassment to the host. But this woman is clearly unconcerned about decorum or the reaction of other people. Her gaze is fixed on Jesus alone. The fact that she shatters the flask means that she keeps not even one drop for herself. She is not counting the cost.
Who was this woman, and what did she mean? The Gospel gives us few clues, but we can surmise that she had already encountered Jesus at some point. She must have had a profound experience of healing, or forgiveness, or unconditional love from him, and she wanted to express her love in return. So when she found out that Jesus was at table in the home of Simon the leper, she took her chance. It was her way of showing extravagant love, of giving Jesus the very best she had.
A “Beautiful Thing.” Jesus’ disciples and the other dinner guests, however, are not impressed. On the contrary, they are incensed. Why this waste? they ask (Matthew 26:8). At first glance, their objection may seem reasonable. The ointment would have generated an enormous revenue that could have been donated to the poor.
But Jesus reproaches those who had rebuked her,
Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. . . . She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. (Mark 14:6, 8)
Jesus’ response to the critics is a permanent encouragement to all those who do as this woman did: Don’t listen to those who say, Why this waste? Don’t worry about what the world thinks. She has done a beautiful thing for the King of kings himself, an act of love he will never forget.
Love Poured Out. That gift of self-outpouring love is the gift that Ani and her family gave Pepito and that he gave them. And they found the Lord’s extravagant grace in return. As Ani recalled,
He was so patient and he never complained, but I know he suffered, because everything he felt, I felt it too, and I was prepared for that.
But nothing could have prepared me for the joy that came along with it, the joy that can only come from being so completely united to Christ. Pepito would often have moments when he would spontaneously burst into giggles, or where it would seem like he could not stop smiling.
Sometimes his eyes would fix on a point, and he would just gaze at one spot and his face would be radiant and his eyes filled with delight. Pepito’s optic nerves were so damaged that it’s likely the most he could see were big shapes and light and shadows, but we know that he could see things that we can’t see.
When I looked in his eyes, I felt loved beyond comprehension, as if the eyes looking at me were the eyes of Jesus himself. And the very thing that those eyes saw clearly was the face of God.
Thank God for those like Pepito and his family who give the world a glimpse of the hidden treasure beyond all price. They teach us not to be like the condescending critics of the woman with the alabaster jar, who can only count value in dollars and shekels. They help us understand that true love is love poured out, without counting the cost.
This article by Dr. Mary Healy, professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, is excerpted from Wisdom from Women in Scripture, edited by Kelly Wahlquist.
Written by Catholic women leaders, this new book offers rich insights into the lives of women like Ruth, Esther, Mary, and the woman with the alabaster jar. They will help you look upon the God who sees you, loves you, and brings you healing, courage, and mercy right where you are. Available at bookstore.wau.org.