As I was growing up, there were many smells that defined my experience of both my parents and their cooking. Sunday brunches were permeated with the wafting scent of coffee and cinnamon rolls as my mom organized her children into small teams to put a meal on the table for 10 of us. When we returned home from school on Monday’s – it was not uncommon to recognize the bread she had baked with our noses before we saw it with our eyes. And on many summer evenings my dad would unwind from his day in front of his outdoor his grill – barbecuing hamburgers or steak with flashes of flame and lots of smoke. I don’t know that he was an accomplished griller – but it certainly was aromatic.
Usually the smell gave me the information I needed; and most often the smell excited me for the meal that was to come. There was one notable exception; when my mom cooked bacon, onions and liver together. Every time she made it, I thought I was going to love it too. Of course it was the bacon and onions that saturated the kitchen and family room. And yet, I was fooled every time; because I was not only disappointed when I tasted it, I actually felt like gagging. Each time she made it I felt set up. Loveliness, all loveliness, and then bam – liver. Ugh.
Smells have a way of staying with us, don’t they?
Our family has vivid memories of the Jorvik Viking Museum in York, England. You can take a little train that takes you back to 5:30 pm on October 25 975 as you tour of a reconstructed Viking settlement. This exhibit, excavated underneath the layers of several subsequent civilizations in this same spot, includes voices speaking in Old Norse, as well as the aromas of life. Fires, sewage, livestock and human body odor. It’s visceral and very effective of dispelling any notion of ‘the good old days.”
I also remember a conversation with our own Al Bach when our 8th grade son had to interview someone who had lived through World War II. More than anything else, Al wanted us to know what history books don’t tell you about war – the smell of death. A smell that permeated the landscape as he joined liberating American troops working throughout France. It was a smell, he said, that he’d never forget.
We now have research that helps understand why we remember those experiences so well; knowing that smells trigger associations and memories in ways that are often more long lasting than our other senses.
While the writers of the gospels didn’t have the scientific understanding of the power of smell, they undoubtedly had the lived experience of how odors and scents permeated life and death in all kinds of ways. While we often miss the nuances, this story in John with Mary and Martha is, among other things, a contrast in smells…
- In chapter 11, just before our text, contains the story of the resurrection of their brother Lazarus. The waiting and longing of these women is framed by ‘the stench of death’ around his tomb as the text notes he been dead for 4 days. Whatever anointing they may have done upon his death is now being overshadowed by decay.
- In today’s reading from Chapter 12, Jesus has moved from Lazarus’ tomb to his home in Bethany. During the meal (shared mostly by men) we don’t hear about the food, or really the conversation, but rather the fragrance of the perfume Mary uses spontaneously to wash his feet. This act of courage and gratitude cost her almost a year’s wages. The same or similar anointing oil they probably used on their previously dead brother.
The focus in these chapters is framed by the fragrance of that perfume. As a gift of faith and love, it cannot counteract death’s smell, it does not overpower the stench; but the act of offering reminds us that death is not the only truth about our existence.
I have had the profound grace of being present at the birth of my children as well as the deathbed of my father and a few others in this congregation. If you asked me what was surprising about those profound moments, it would be that I never anticipated the smells involved.
Our children’s births – miracles that belie description – were smelly, messy affairs. The birth movies we watched ahead of time did not include scratch and sniff cards. They did not describe all the conflicting odors of bodily fluids, sweat, and antiseptic tools. They did not speak about how new life emerged from the primordial smells of the earth.
My father’s passing was just two years ago, during which several family members and I sat vigil for several days. This time also included noises and smells that weren’t outlined in the hospice manual.
Amazing experiences. But in both cases – the odors, fragrances, or stink – whatever word you want to use – underscored the gritty truth that all life and all death is imbued with both the fragrant and the no so fragrant.
We could chart our lives – with the odors and fragrances that define them – could we not?
Our connection with food for sure – The aroma of a Middle Eastern or Indian restaurant, the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, or a fruit pie in the oven? We could spend hours describing how we engage with food through our nose.
Or the perfumes and colognes of loved ones; not to mention the distinct smell of their bodies in this world.
Or our experience with the created world – be it spring blossoms, autumn leaves beginning to decay, summer heat on the garden dirt or asphalt parking lot…
Or our work setting – the distinct aroma of children’s bodies coming in from a winter’s recess as it permeates the school hallway; the smell of the lab in which we study and ponder; the diesel of the truck as it backs up to a loading dock; the unique realities of an airplane waiting area or cabin as we travel for a distant meeting.
And some odors, of course, that simply repel no matter when or where. Burnt toast, animal waste, sewage back up, gunpowder.
We can’t choose to smell one thing over another. That is the point of smell. It takes control of us, taking over that which we’d rather be able to smell. It is just there and somehow, someway, you have to deal with it, whatever memory it brings back, whatever feeling it elicits, and whatever good or bad effects it brings on.
Into the reality of the simultaneous smells of life and death, we read of Mary’s risk taking devotion, her anointing of the feet of Jesus as a reminder that death is not the final word.
As she offers a blessing she is honoring beauty, and proclaiming deep grace for a life facing significant obstacles.
She is giving honor to the spirit within us all that can prevail against even betrayal and death.
And by offering this blessing at a dinner where she knew there was resistance, she is reminding us that hope is gritty; it permeates everything it encounters. Hope doesn’t deny hardship or death in any of it’s forms, but it does remind us that fragrant beauty can change the whole room in which we live. It isn’t a set of thoughts or wishes; it is engaged action that works its grace and passion into the very crevices of struggle, pain, loss and disappointment. Like aromas, hope is not bound by walls or time periods. It wafts and weaves, meanders and migrates where it will.
In a few minutes – you’ll have a chance to be anointed, or blessed – with a slightly fragrant oil. To bring healing, or beauty, or hope, or grace into your life. You’ll be welcomed by others in this room, gracefully and lovingly. As you are offered a prayer, and as you are anointed with oil, we hope it will also remind you how your gifts and your grace can infuse the world in which you live with love and possibility. And that together, we can remind ourselves that faithfulness makes a difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us. So, as you come forward, come seeking more of what allows you to be a grace filled, love infused, Child of God. Come seeking that which gives you hope.
Today’s Text: John 12:1-18
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. 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.”