Do you need an idea for some cost-free entertainment? Let me offer a suggestion. Go to the Yankee Candle store in Williamsburg (but don’t buy anything because nothing there is cheap). Walk up to a display, but don’t read any information about the candles. Pick up one up, take off the lid, smell the aroma, and try to guess the name of the scent. You can spend hours doing this and never come close to getting it right. “Wait, wait, I know what this smells like, but I just can’t figure it out!” Then you look at the label: “Oh, right, cotton pillow covers in the Caribbean moonlight. Of course!”
Did you know that, generally speaking, women have a more acute sense of smell than men? Here is a typical office conversation when Amy was our parish administrator:
Amy: Do you smell that?
Amy: Really, you don’t smell that?
Amy: You can’t smell (here you can insert one of the following – gas leak, dead squirrel in the attic, or sour milk in the refrigerator).
And yes, my office conversational skills are just this scintillating!
Did you know that five million cells located high up in our nasal passages give us the ability to smell? By way of comparison, a dog has about 220 million of these cells. I read on the internet that our noses can detect over one trillion different scents, but I find it a hard to believe. Apparently our sense of smell reaches a pinnacle when we are eight years old and then declines as we get older. Of all the human senses, smell is the oldest.
In today’s gospel reading we hear a story filled with aromatic intrigue. Mary, we are told, takes some very costly perfume, rubs it on Jesus’ feet, and wipes it with her hair. All of this unfolds during a communal meal. As with meals in our own parish hall, various groups of people are in conversation with one another. The room is loud. The mood is festive.
The text tells us the house is filled with the fragrance of the anointment. Nard is derived from a flowering plant that grows only in the mid-elevations of the Himalayas. It was used as a perfume and had medicinal qualities. It would have felt very soothing on Jesus’ feet. Its aroma was so pervasive it was poured over corpses to mask the stench of decay. When its fragrance overwhelmed the room surely all conversation stopped as the guests tried to discern the origin of the aroma. Even olfactory-challenged me would have picked up on it!
Let’s put this story in some context. Mary, her sister Martha, and her brother Lazarus, live in the town of Bethany; just a half hour walk from Jerusalem. Lazarus had been very ill and actually died about a week earlier. But Jesus called him out of the tomb and raised him from the dead. This act meant different things to different people. Mary and Martha were elated. Jesus, however, could no longer move about openly for two reasons. First, he was inundated by the masses and second, the authorities wanted to arrest him on sight. Lazarus himself was in peril. The authorities wanted to kill him in an effort to stop Jesus’ growing popularity.
Mary and Martha (who apparently had some means) host Jesus and his followers at their house for a meal. No doubt they want to celebrate what Jesus has done for their family. It is a Saturday evening. The next day Jesus will enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. He will be crucified and buried in less than a week.
There are five main characters in John’s telling of this story: Jesus (of course), Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Judas. Over the span of Jesus’ three-year-long public ministry, each has been changed.
Let’s start with Martha. At a previous meal hosted at their house, she complained to Jesus that her sister should not be sitting at his feet listening to him, but rather should be in the kitchen helping with the preparations. The text tells us she was concerned with “distractions.” Jesus tells her she is troubled by “too many things”, when only a “few things” are necessary. Apparently Martha orchestrated that meal to be a way-too-complicated event so Jesus invited her to tone it down. My guess is Martha was a tad insecure and her massive effort was an attempt to win approval and praise.
Fast forward to today’s story where we are told Martha “serves” those at the table. She is not trying to do “too many things”, but rather is focused in on the tending to the needs of others. Through her serving, she is performing the role of an ordained deacon. Her homemaking has become her ministry and she is very good at it. Martha invites us to ponder how we can grow in humility and service to others through the ordinary things we know and do best.
When we encountered Mary at the first meal she was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach. It was an act unheard of in that day and age for a woman to be received as a disciple, but Jesus never shooed her away. And now, at this meal, she has moved from passive listening to active acting. By anointing Jesus, she takes on a priestly ministry. One commentator describes it as “the smell of love in the face of certain betrayal.” Her act is an expression of gratitude and complete adoration. It is lavish beyond all measure. It is a “prodigal” act in the best sense of the word. Mary invites us ponder the ways we might express pure adoration to God for all the good God has done for us.
Although Lazarus must have been around during the first meal, there is no mention of him in the text. We first learn of him when he is ill and dies. In today’s reading, we are told he is one of those reclining at the table. Like Jesus, he has become a popular figure. Crowds want to see the man raised from the dead, and authorities want him dead. For his part, Lazarus is silent. We never once hear him speak. I wonder if his experience is so overwhelming he cannot find words to describe it. Even though he has been brought back from the dead he does not emerge from the tomb with a ‘resurrected body’ as we see Jesus having in his post-Easter appearances. Perhaps Lazarus is alive, but the death experience has affected his ability to speak. It is also possible he has been affected in other physical ways not described in the text. Lazarus invites us to ponder how age and health crises lead to limited capacities, yet still we sit at “table” with Jesus. Diminished vitality does not necessarily mean a diminished experience of life, purpose, and ministry.
Then there is Judas. It is hard to know if his time with Jesus has had any positive impact on his life at all. I’d like to think so, but in the end it is not enough to overcome his demons. When we find him at this meal, he is bitter, judgmental, and dishonest. He fanes interest in “the poor”, but like so many people today, he is tugging at heartstrings and using guilt not to help those in need, but to feather his own nest. The episode with the nard pushes him over the top. Judas steals away and makes plans to hand Jesus over to the authorities. He profits handsomely from this act, but he too will be dead within a week; taking his own life when he comes to regret the consequences of his actions. Judas invites us to consider those areas in our lives still in need of redemption and he cautions us to ponder the potential for damage and destruction if we do not tend to them.
And finally we come to Jesus. His entire life and ministry have brought him to this moment where he has determined to offer his own life as the ultimate witness of how God withholds nothing – not even God’s own Son – to be in whole, reconciled relationship with you, me, and all of humankind.
Yet even in this moment, we see Jesus embracing his humanity. He is willing to receive care and compassion from another. Surely he knew what awaited him in Jerusalem. Surely he was anxious about what he could not control. Surely, like you and me, his fretfulness manifested itself in physical ways. Surely his feet ached – callous and dry from the paths he walked. How good must the nard have felt! How soothing must the caressing have been! Of all that Jesus invites us to ponder, I encourage you to consider your own physical needs. In what ways do you acknowledge the toll your giving – your ministry – takes on you and how do you open yourself to the healing and restorative ministry of another? Jesus needed this moment. So do you.
Today’s reading invites us to ponder how this season of Lenten discipline has affected us. It invites us to consider how our walk with Jesus over the past few years has changed us. It encourages us to discern what God is doing in and through our faith community, which, like all churches, is called to be a living organism open to the Spirit. What dynamics speak of where God is taking us? Where are we in the story of God’s redemptive love? How might we experience healing and wholeness? How might we offer this to others?
Wait! Wait! (Sniff! Sniff!) Do you smell that? Do you smell the fragrance of what God is doing in this place? Do you smell the aroma of what God is doing in your life?