Sensing the Gospel 5: Smell


I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;
    give ear to my voice when I call to you.
2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
    and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.  ~Psalm 141:1-2

14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16 to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?  ~2 Corinthians 2:14-16

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii[b] and the money given to the poor?” 6 (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.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  ~John 12:1-8

I read a fascinating  article last week that said certain smells are disappearing. I’ll name just five of them:

The smell of a roll of film when you open the canister.

The smell of chalk dust on a chalkboard.

The smell of a new car. I know we still have new car smell, but, they say, it doesn’t smell like it used to, because now new cars smell overwhelmingly of plastics, chemical additives, flame retardants, and anti-microbials that are standards of the industry. So, I guess what we’re missing is old-time, new-car smell.

The smell of fresh-off-the-machine purple printed “dittoes,” like we used to have handed out to us in school.

The smell of burning leaves.

I wonder how many of those smells evoked memories in you. For me, every one of them did—and I noticed that they were connected to other sense memories too. The smell of chalk is connected to my memory of taking my turn to clean the chalkboards at the end of the school day, the gritty feel of chalk on my fingers, and the satisfaction of the clean board. The smell of film is connected to my old Pentax K1000, and my discovery of the thrill of black and white photography. The smell of the leaves is connected to the cozy feeling of warm clothes as the weather cools.

Smell is incredibly important to us. It connects us to memory.

Smell can also warn us of things that may be unsafe (though, this is not foolproof, I’m sure you know). But food that has gone bad, for example, often gives off a foul odor that lets us know… don’t touch it, because, it stinks.

The passage I read from John’s gospel follows immediately upon what is Jesus’ greatest miracle, or sign, in that gospel: the raising of Lazarus from the dead—Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, a man dear to Jesus, a man said to be one whom Jesus loved.

In chapter 11, when Jesus comes to the tomb of Lazarus, and calls for it to be opened, the translation we most often use tells us that Martha objects because, she says, “already there is a stench.” But the King James Version is a little ruder:

… Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh…. ~John 11:39

He stinketh. Martha didn’t mince words. A pretty vivid, visceral way of warning Jesus away from the tomb.

And, in truth, a good way of summarizing the whole situation. Lazarus had been sick; Jesus had not come in time, and now, Martha and Mary’s brother, Jesus’ beloved friend, was dead. And that stinks.

But we know how that story ends. Jesus calls the dead man forth, and he walks from the tomb, not dead, but alive.

The story continues with our passage, a week later.

It is my theory that life in the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, has been pretty much one long, extended party since Lazarus came back from the dead. And finally, on the seventh day of celebrating, Jesus joins them. 

My theory is that Mary has been waiting for him to come. She’s known it was only a matter of time. Of course he would stop by on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover. And when he did, she, Mary, would have a gift for him.

Mary wanted to show Jesus her love. Her gratitude. She wanted to say, “I see you, I understand who you are, and I am eternally grateful for what you bring.” And so that night, at the end of the meal, as her sister Martha, perhaps, poured wine from a jug into cups that were nearly empty, and as her brother Lazarus leaned against Jesus, listening to him talk, his newborn eyes shining, Mary slipped from the room, only to return with a jar of alabaster that held a foolishly large quantity of oil of spikenard, the most expensive, most fragrant, most luxurious ointment she could buy. She had to have spent a small fortune on it. It’s my guess, she would have spent a thousand great fortunes on it if she could.

She carried the jar into the great room, filled with their guests, and went to kneel before Jesus. She took his feet in her hands and broke open the jar, pouring the ointment on his feet. It was lavish. It was wasteful. It was irrational. It was love.

Immediately the fragrance rose—like the incense in the evening psalm, like the prayers of the pilgrims rise up to heaven.  The fragrance rose and permeated the whole room, and every one inhaled it and sighed at its beauty, and every eye was on Jesus, watching his reaction.

I imagine she took her time. This wasn’t intended to be the gift of an instant, it was the gift of an experience. Imagine Mary rubbing the ointment into his feet, feet that had crossed the Holy Land so many times on his journeys. Nazareth to Bethany, Bethany to Jerusalem, and back again. Countless miles those feet had walked. Surely, Jesus had the feet of a worker, a farmer, strong and calloused, tendons showing through his brown skin. I imagine Mary massaging the fragrant nard into Jesus’ feet as tenderly, and as lovingly, as if he were a baby. Then she lowered her head, and unpinned the great length of her thick black hair, and began to wipe his feet with it.

Mary knew what she was doing. Mary knew the meaning of her actions. It was love. Pure love. Pure gratitude. And, she understood later, only a few short days later, it was the beginning of a wrenching goodbye.

There was one in the room who did not seem to understand, who did not see the gesture for what it was. He brought up the poor… And let me tell you, there wasn’t a person in that room who didn’t know: being poor stinks. It stinks to high heaven. And the one who objected, the one who challenged this loving gesture appealed to that knowledge.

Jesus replied in an interesting way. He said the first half of a well-known saying, a verse of scripture, actually. It was as if you or I might say, “The course of true love…” and not finish, but we would know that the people we were talking to could finish our sentence: “…never did run smoothly.” “The poor you will always have with you…” Jesus said, and maybe he paused, so that they could complete the words in their heads: “…so I command you, open your hand to the poor and needy in your land.”

But this, Jesus said… this gift. This fragrant offering. This perfume that filled the room, and filled each heart with wonder… this was pure gratitude. Pure love. It’s for my burial.

Our sense of smell. It is tied in with memory. The people who came to dinner that night, and experienced the perfume rising and permeating the entire room, all received the gift of a memory so impermeable, that it has come down to us. This story is told, in some form or another, in each and every gospel.

The comforting aroma of a delicious dinner.

The pungent bouquet of wine.

The hypnotic scent of costly ointment.

This fragrance became forever associated with the lavish generosity of a woman who was only trying to respond to what she had received: It was a sign of her gratitude. It was a sign of Love. Pure love.