Something I’ve noted before in sermons is how often we read scripture without engaging our senses. This is unfortunate, considering how sensory scripture can be. Scripture is not meant to simply engage our minds in theoretical exercises, or even just our hearts in a sort of emotional manipulation.
Scripture, as it is written, is meant to be fully engaged by our five senses: to taste the sweetness manna in the wilderness; to feel the flames of Pentecost; to see the dust caked on the faces of the disciples after a long journey; to hear the loud Hosanna’s! from the crowd at the entrance to Jerusalem; and of course, the smells.
Of all the senses that can be engaged in our scripture lesson this morning, smell is the most palpable. It is “the smell of the perfume, costing almost a year’s wages, permeating every nook and cranny of that room. That smell in contrast to the smell of death, which, by the way, is reclining on Jesus. The smell of love in the face of certain betrayal” (Lewis).
Of all the senses, smell may be the one we are least likely to engage when we read anything, least of all, the Bible. But imagine the many smells that are evoked throughout the Old and New Testaments. The smell of good, poured wine. The smell of the hot sun on the stones of a well’s stonewalls. The pallet of a man who has been lying paralyzed for nearly 40 years. The smell of bread just pulled from the hearth. The smell of mud, just created from dirt and spit, rubbed on a blind man’s eyes. The smell of the many pastures where sheep and cattle graze- the grass and the smell of animals comingling. The smell of a body four days dead (Lewis).
Smells can please and repulse; delight and distance; anticipate and repel (Lewis). Yet smell is a very human part of life. Our text from John finds two very visceral smells explicitly and implicitly present in the verses.
First there is the obvious smell of the “costly perfume made of pure nard,” with which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, and which Judas becomes irate (more on his reaction another time). This ointment, or myron, “appears to be… [used] in the general sense of ointment of perfume than in the more specific sense of myrrh. The ointment was spikenard which comes from a flowering plant in the Valerian family named Nardostachys jatamansi.
“In the ancient world, this plant was found in altitudes between 7000 and 14000 feet in the Himalaya mountains in China, Nepal, or India. (The word “nard” probably comes from India.) Importation from these distant sites would indeed have made the ointment ‘very expensive’” (Petty).
And Mary takes this extraordinary ointment, and anoints Jesus’ feet. This anointing is quite important. Anointing had one of two connotations. It was either “typically associated with kingship and was done on the head,” or it was done to a body after death (Petty). So Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet carries with it the implicit connection to his kingship as Messiah, but also foreshadowing his death. At the same time, the feet in the ancient world were always quite dirty as the main shoe of the era was the sandal, and the streets were quite filthy, trash mixed with animal waste. So Mary’s care for Jesus’ feet was a very loving act of care and devotion.
The second smell that permeates this text is less obvious if we do not set the context. The chapter immediately preceding this one in John’s gospel recounts the death of Lazarus, Jesus’ return to Bethany where he weeps with the sisters, Martha and Mary, and then Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead after four days.
When he is in Bethany, he demands to be shown to the tomb where Lazarus was buried, and then orders the stone removed. Martha replied, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (11:39). In the ancient world, they did not have elaborate embalming techniques or ways of preserving a body. They would bury a body quickly, within a day or two, because if they didn’t, the smell would rapidly become overpowering.
So not only is the scent of death lingering over Jesus because of where we know he is heading, but the literal stench of death hangs over the gathering from Lazarus’ time in the tomb.
Karoline Lewis points out that Mary’s use of this costly perfume was “not to counteract death, erase death’s smell, or try to overpower its stench mentioned only verses before with the raising of Lazarus. But [it was] a scent to smell at the same time you can smell the scent of death… Smells don’t replace- they contrast, they tell the truth about our human existence” (Lewis).
See, life and death exist together, and these smells are simultaneous. We experience them both, and each is amplified by the other. Our experience of life is tempered by death, and our encounters with death lead to a fuller experience of life.
In one week, we will celebrate with the crowd Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We will pick up palm branches, wave them in the air, shout Hosanna! and rejoice in the Lord.
Yet by the end of the week, he will be betrayed by one of his closest friends, abandoned by his followers, beaten bloody, and nailed on a cross to die.
But, hold on! Doesn’t Jesus’ resurrection cancel out pain and power of death?
Well, “Yes- and no. One week before Palm/Passion Sunday, that smells kind of bad. As if we can pretend that pain and power of death can be erased. That death’s smell can really be overpowered by resurrection’s promise. The point of this last Sunday in Lent is not to kid ourselves. Nothing changes with Jesus’ resurrection. Death will still smell as it does. Death will still seep through every crevice that we might try to stopgap. Death will still find the smallest crack to invade our assurances that resurrection is true.
“And yet everything changes with Jesus’ resurrection. Just don’t let the smell of abundant love and life allow you to think that the smell of death won’t be there as well” (Lewis).
These two smells coexist; it is the balance of life in creation. To live as God’s creation means existing in a world where life and death go hand-in-hand. “Because the smell of life is only as sweet as its opposite. When we resist or reject death’s smell as no longer part of our lives, no longer relevant, no longer that which matters, we have in the end, upended the grace-filled truth of the incarnation” (Lewis).
Christ’s incarnation means he became human, and to become human means that he would have to die a very human death. But just think about how, even when we catch the scent of lingering death, we also smell life. When we smell the rotting flowers in the garden, we also smell the possibility in the soil. “While we smell a rotting body in a tomb… we can smell the earth underneath the stone as it is being rolled away. It is while we can barely stand the smell of Lazarus that Mary pours perfume on Jesus’ feet” (Lewis).
The power of smell works to overwhelm us in good ways and in poor. We walk into the house of a friend and smell coffee and cookies, and we know we are in a place of love. We open the refrigerator and the block of gouda we forgot about in the bottom drawer has finally molded out of its packaging. “[Smell] permeates our life with the good and the bad, the powerful and the painful, the delirious and the difficult” (Lewis).
And that is where we find the power of this story, holding together Lent and Easter; the painful journey toward the cross, the agony of Christ’s death, but also the joy and beauty found on Easter morning. These two cannot be mutually exclusive; they have to go together, and in it, we find profound hope. Amen.
Lewis, Karoline. “Simultaneous Smells.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 6 Mar. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.
Petty, John. “Lectionary Blogging: John 12:1-8.” Progressive Involvement. N.p., 15 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.