by Keith Fry
Pastor for Christ the Lord Lutheran Church, Elgin, Illinois
"The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." I am someone who loves scents of various sorts. I've been forbidden at home to buy any more scented candles or reed diffusers or air sprays until we've used up the ones we have. I think I like scents and perfumes because they trigger olfactory memories in me…pleasant odors remind me of good and pleasant things. This cinnamon apple air spray, for example…it smells just like the Christmas wassail candle that my mother received from one of her kindergarten students one year.
So when I smell it, I remember Christmas and family. I bought this bottle of rosewater not because I had any recipes to make with it…I bought it because when I smell it, I remember my grandmother, who scented her dresser drawers with it. It smells like her to me. This cinnamon reminds me of a friend who was a baker, and made the most fragrant cinnamon rolls you can imagine, dripping with cinnamon. I loved going to his house for brunch. He's no longer with us, but the smell of cinnamon brings him right back before me. This candle, nearly burned up, was a gift from my partner years ago. It was a special Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor commemorative candle to raise money for those with HIV/AIDS, and was ridiculously costly, as candles go. We both love the scent, but we burn it only on special occasions, so we can make it last. Sometimes I'll take the lid off and just breathe deeply, and those special occasions come back to me. Stop for just a moment, and call to mind one of your favorite scents. See how the memory floods in?
Olfactory memory is one of the most direct routes to stimulating the brain to remember, to spring to life. Those memories are not always explicit, like the ones I describe. Sometimes they operate completely below the surface of conscious remembering, but brain studies show that nonetheless the brain lights up with even traces of smells, down to the millionth part, just a few molecules. There's some indication that olfactory memory actually begins in the amniotic fluid, and then mother and newborn bond together from their scents as the infant nurses for the first time. There's some indication that the mother, when the baby is placed on her breast, smells the waters of birth and recognizes the child as her own. And at the other end of life, we've found that those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's also display significant loss of smell. It's as though if we can't smell, we can't remember clearly who we are.
The writer of the Gospel of John seems to share my fascination with scents. I suspect his or her house was filled with the Palestinian equivalents of my scented candles. In the gospel lesson we just heard, the writer makes a special point of describing the perfume that Mary uses, the extravagant costliness of it, the way the smell filled the entire house. This detail about fragrance seems to matter. The text says that Mary took a whole pound of costly nard oil, ointment that was worth three-quarters of a year's wages for a laborer, painstakingly distilled from a plant that grows far away on the high slopes of the Himalayas.
And the Greek stresses that it was “the real stuff,” no cheap knock-off. It was the smell of extravagance, of lavishness. The smell of it was considered refreshing, exhilarating. It was the very scent of erotic love in the Song of Solomon. It was said that smelling it could help you forget deep-seated grief, and its scent would ease the transition from life to death for those who were dying. It had healing properties, it brought comfort. And Mary takes that costly oil and lavishly pours it over Jesus' feet, and the strong, musky smell wafts out from Jesus and fills the whole house, carrying all those associations to those who could smell it. Breathe it in. Love. Healing. Release from grief. All bound up in a fragrance. Can you smell it?
This isn't the first time the gospel writer has mentioned smells. Just days before, Jesus had come to visit this same family. But that time, there was no banquet, no enticing aroma of roasted goat or of fragrant nard. No, that time, Jesus came to the doorway of a tomb where this same Lazarus who is now reclining at dinner was instead reclining in death. And when Jesus orders bystanders to take away the stone that seals up the entrance, his sister Martha, ever the practical one, thinks first about the smell. “Lord, no! He stinks already! He's been dead four days!” The smell of death. Not every smell is pleasant, is it? Not all of our memories and associations smell good. And sometimes those unpleasant memories, that stench of death, that odor of death-dealing, painful recollection can fill our noses. It becomes hard to smell anything else, hard to think of anything else. It's a powerful, fearsome scent. We've all smelled it somehow, somewhere.
The past few days have been days for me when the stench of death has been strong in my nostrils. On Friday night, our grand-nephew Tommy, a 16 year-old boy, just a kid, took a gun to a party only a few miles from here, a gun he thought was unloaded, and in a moment of foolishness and thoughtlessness, turned it on himself and pulled the trigger, and in an instant, lay dead. We will gather Wednesday at his tomb, the same number of days that Lazarus lay in death. Oh, the stench of death is strong, isn't it? Sometimes it seems almost overpowering. Sometimes it seems as though it is the only smell in our nostrils as we look at this broken world around us. It's a smell that can make us swoon, an odor that can make us forget everything good, an odor that risks drowning out everything else.
But remember something: this banquet that Jesus is at is not a funeral banquet. I think this banquet is a celebration banquet. Because when Jesus ordered that stone rolled away, and commanded, “Lazarus, come out!” the stench of death was not what greeted those standing there. Lazarus' death had been undone, the decay had been reversed. And instead of the odor of death, what came to their nostrils was the sweet scent of the spices that clung to the bands of cloth that were wrapped around him as they unbound him and let him return to life. And when Mary kneels and pours that fragrant nard on Jesus, she is acting in gratitude for life that has been restored. That fragrant oil, that smell that fills the whole house, is not only an anointing for Jesus' burial, it is also the sweet smell of release from deep-seated grief, an offering of gratitude for life restored. The nard is not the smell of death, it's the smell of power over death…it's the scent of resurrection.
On Friday of this week, we will hear the next portion of John's story, and again there is something to smell. The last few verses that we will hear on Good Friday tell us about Nicodemus, who comes to prepare Jesus' body for laying out in the tomb. With him, he brings 100 pounds of burial spices, an extravagant amount. The smell of those spices coming from the bags must have filled his nostrils as he and others layered them into the grave clothes that they wrapped around Jesus' body…a smell to ward off the stench of death. But hear the Good News: Just as the stone was rolled away from Lazarus' tomb and he walked out into new life, the stone is rolled away from the tomb of Jesus, and the stench of death is destroyed, because death no longer has power. Replacing that fearsome odor is the sweet smell of nard, the sweet smell of love and healing.
As we gather around this table for the banquet with Jesus, we gather not for a funeral banquet, but for a resurrection banquet, and like Lazarus, we come having been raised to new life. We come drenched in the waters of baptism, and are recognized by the fragrance of those waters as God's own beloved children. Each time you walk past this font, stop and touch the water, but don't just touch it, smell it, and breathe deeply.
Can you smell the new life? We come then to this table not to smell death, we come to smell the sweet smell of resurrection. We come not to remember and be bound by past pain and sorrowing, we come to be unbound and set free from all the ways of death, to be reminded that we have been raised to new life. Each time you come to this table, stop and breathe deeply. Pull it into your nostrils, pull it down deep in your lungs.
Can you smell the fragrance? Let it make your brain come alive, let it trigger memories of thankfulness and joy, let it remind you of who you are, and of what Christ has done. Smell it? That's the fragrance of life…that's the fragrance of extravagant, costly love…that's the smell of victory…that's the scent of resurrection.