Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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.
There sits on the dresser of my bedroom a small wooden box. Once upon a time, a quarter century ago, it was a jewelry box. But now it is a treasure chest. Were you to open it, you wouldn’t recognize any of its contents as treasures: a deck of old playing cards, a stained coffee mug, a luggage tag, an empty bottle that once contained “Witch Hazel” astringent. To me, though, they are priceless. They are the relics of my grandmother, taken by me from her bedroom along with the box itself when I was in the eighth grade, just after she’d died.
Occasionally I sit on the edge of the bed to open the fragile wooden box and sift through its contents. My daughter Eliza likes to sit with me when I do so. She is fascinated by the random menagerie of old things. But she also gets frustrated because as we review our little treasures I’ll pause mid-sentence, almost as if entranced. My catatonia is triggered when I hold the box just so and its aroma wafts to my nose. My grandmother has been gone more than twenty-five years, but it is a fragrance of her, of McGehee, Arkansas, where she lived, and when my olfactory sense is triggered, the nostalgia is overpowering. For a moment she is there, and I am with her, and the love is as real as it was the last time she embraced me. Indeed, were the treasures themselves all gone, the fragrance would be more than enough.
The sense of smell is our oldest and most primitive sense. Before humans had a gleam in our eyes, before our fingertips gained their sensitivity, before our ears were so finely tuned, we could smell.[i] Like many of the oldest things, our sense of smell is, in many ways, the most powerful. We are told that mothers, sometimes separated for years from their biological children, can nevertheless detect them by smell. Siblings can do the same with one another. Additionally, pheromones are detected by smell, attracting us to our mates. Forget those love songs and sparkling jewels. The way to our hearts is, in fact, through the nose!
There’s an interesting thing about the hardwiring of smell in human beings, which we share with almost none of God’s other creatures. Our olfactory sense travels to the brain along two routes. The first is to the frontal cortex, where the brain detects and identifies the scent. That might be enough. But the second pathway is to the limbic region of the brain—also old, also primitive, also powerful—where emotion and motivation and deepest memory live. There aroma travels, and there it takes hold. And the result is that we scarcely ever forget where we first sensed that smell; we are transported back to the origin of that scent; we discover our hearts and souls filled with the fragrance of that perfume.
You know this, don’t you? You’ve been in the line at the grocery store and caught the scent of the perfume or cologne of the person in front of you. Immediately, in your memory you were in the presence of the first person you ever kissed, who wore that same fragrance. You blushed right there in the supermarket to no one in particular at the folly of your youthful infatuation all those years ago.
Or, you’ve walked into a house to discover someone baking that particular loaf of bread or pan of brownies or dish of herbs and spices and were suddenly transported back to that dinner party so long ago permeated by that self-same aroma. All over again, you chuckle at the jokes that were told then and smile to yourself at the company you kept.
The story John’s Gospel gives us today was clearly an important one to the followers of Jesus. It appears in some version in John, Mark, and Luke. Details of the story differ. Sometimes Jesus is in Bethany, sometimes not. Sometimes the woman who anoints him is Mary, sometimes she is unnamed. But in every version we find the perfume. In every version we imagine, as John tells us specifically, that the fragrance of the perfume fills the house.
It is clear that this was no dime store aftershave. Both John and Mark stress how costly the perfume was, and John adds that Mary anoints Jesus with a Roman pound, or twelve full ounces of the stuff. It’s also important to remember that first century Palestine was a place without antibacterial soap, without deodorant. The few who could afford to do so powdered, perfumed and otherwise masked the noxious odors of their world in any way they could. Perfume was among society’s most valued and cherished possessions, and what Mary poured upon Jesus likely equaled a full year’s wages.[ii] Mary’s gift is not incidental. She is making a profound sacrifice. Through this material gift, she is sacramentally giving Jesus the all of her.
Was this, do you think, the first time those gathered around Jesus had smelled this particular scent? What associations might have been conjured to mind when Mary broke open her jar? No matter, because the implication is that the aroma of the perfume mingles with the blessed presence of Jesus, and a new experience is forged among those present. It travels along their olfactory sense to the limbic brain, and there it settles into the deepest, oldest, most primitive part of them. There it transforms emotion and motivation. This experience with Jesus will become the most profound memory, one that will be pulled back into the present and made operative in their lives again and again whenever the fragrance of Jesus fills their souls. For Mary the new experience will come to life in her again in just two weeks’ time, when on Easter morning she takes this same anointing perfume to what she believes to be the tomb of Jesus. There, too, the rock-hewn room that aspired to be a grave is instead filled with that sweet fragrance…
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ John 12: 4-8
But it’s still Lent, and we’re not there yet. Back in today’s story, there is one person whose nostrils are closed to the fragrance. There is one whose soul will not be filled with something new, whose motivations will not be changed, who willfully and obstinately refuses to allow his experience to be, then and forever, upended. Judas masks his closed heart well, protesting that Mary’s extravagance should have been spent on the poor. (We often pretend at virtue to disguise our vice.) The whole house is filled with the fragrance of God, and Judas can’t smell a thing.
And so, granted a metaphor as powerful as our olfactory sense, we are left with two options. We can close our nostrils, so to speak, and thus our souls this day. We can walk through the virtuous motions of worship, pretending that on their own they matter. We can mask our obstinate hearts. We can leave here unchanged.
Or, we can inhale deeply the fragrance of God that fills this house. We can take in the aroma of Christ Jesus, who will transform us heart and soul and will begin to emerge in our consciousness at both the profound and mundane moments of our lives: in that supermarket line, crossing the threshold at home, sitting on the edge of the bed sharing a memory with a child we love. We, like Mary, can give Christ the all of us. We can break ourselves open as Mary broke open the jar and allow the fragrance of God to settle into all the cracks and rivulets, changing us. What better Lenten preparation could there be?
Christ’s love is with us and is as real as it was in Mary’s home in Bethany all those years ago. His fragrance fills this house. Amen.
[i] The details of our olfactory sense come from Dr. Maggie Grotzinger, http://www.pennlive.com/editorials/index.ssf/2011/09/sense_of_smell_can_bring_back.html.
[ii] Yancey, Philip, What Good is God?: In Search of a Faith that Matters, 87.