Nothing beats a good gospel song when the going gets rough. For centuries, songs like “Amazing Grace” and “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” have proven their utility for getting music fans over the rough side of the mountain.
So as we combat both the realities of a global pandemic and a media barrage that sometimes seems as unrelenting as the novel coronavirus itself, music is a balm, and no song brings more comfort that CeCe Winans’ epic “Alabaster Box.” As Christians worldwide observe the most Holy Week of the year, it’s a perfect time to deconstruct that masterpiece, which was the title track to Winans’ fourth solo album, released in 1999.
Written by Janice Sjostrand, “Alabaster Box” details a profound moment of worship. The songwriter declared “Don’t be angry if I wash His feet with my tears and dry them with my hair / You weren’t there the night Jesus found me / You didn’t feel what I felt when He wrapped his loving arms around me / And you don’t know the cost of the oil in my alabaster box.”
Independent of your personal religious beliefs, there’s something powerful about hearing anyone speak their truth as earnestly as Winans does. As it turns out, “Alabaster Box” had quite an impact on the gospel music legend when she heard it for the first time.
“What a song,” Winans declared during a phone chat from her home in Nashville. “I was on tour years ago, and someone gave me a cassette tape and said it had a song on it that I needed to hear. I got into my bunk on the tour bus that night, and I put the song on, and a girl was singing ‘Alabaster Box’, all the way stripped down. I wept, and I wept, and I wept.”
Winans told me that she knew she had to record the song, but the time had to be right.
“I held that song for a few years, because it just had to be the right CD, the right time,” Winans continued. “It describes the meaning and the power of worship. There’s an anointing on that song!”
“Often, someone will present a song to me and it’s a great song, but if it doesn’t minister to me, I don’t really feel it. It’s often a good message, but I don’t feel it. I can only deliver those songs that take me down, that minister to me, that lift me up. Then I can deliver the song. ‘Alabaster Box’ was one of those. It’s one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever heard.”
After hearing about Winans finding the song, and her connection to it, I had to track Sjostrand down. The songwriter and her husband co-pastor Christian Apostolic Church in Newark, Ohio. She grew up in Santa Ana, California and began a walk with Christ when she was just nine years old.
And just as Sjostrand vividly recalls her initial meeting with Jesus, she remembers writing “Alabaster Box” as if it were yesterday.
“I remember exactly when I wrote it,” Sjostrand shared by phone. “My father in law had gone back to his home church [to preach at] an alumni event, and I agreed to sing after his sermon. He began to speak on the woman with the alabaster box. That’s my personal testimony: I’ve always felt, since I was nine years old, like that woman with the alabaster box.”
“When my father-in-law began to preach that sermon, I was so deeply moved that I took an envelope — I can’t remember whether I had it in my purse or whether it was a tithing envelope — and I wrote down the words sitting right there in the pews,” Sjostrand earnestly continued. “When he was done and it was time for my altar call, I sat down at that grand piano and I just sang those words, creating a melody line, singing those hand written words on that envelope.”
“When I got home, I firmed up the melody line, and I don’t know whether I changed a few lyrics of not, but I just typed up those lyrics. I was just so moved by that story, and recalling my own experiences as a little girl desperately trying to find God. That song was a photograph of my life at that moment, trying to pursue God outside of the norm. I was a young woman with young children, and that was my testimony.”
“It’s my song. It’s my heart.”
Sjostrand warmly shared her thankfulness for having been a part of blessing so many gospel music fans with “Alabaster Box.”
“I was delighted when I learned that CeCe Winans wanted to record it, and I have been amazed at the stories people have shared of their connection to ‘Alabaster Box,” Sjostrand said. “It amazes me to travel the world and see where the song has gone, and see the impact that it’s had on people. The Lord will use anything and anyone, so I feel humbled and honored and thrilled to have been such a blessing. I am moved, and deeply touched.”
As we manage the greatest global health crisis of most of our lifetimes, and walk through Passover, Good Friday, and Easter, let’s revisit one of the greatest gospel songs of all time, CeCe Winans’ “Alabaster Box!”