I have a friend who has her grandpa’s ball cap in a box in her room. She told me, “Whenever I’m feeling down, I go get that box and open it up. Immediately, it’s Papa’s smell – and I can feel his arms around me – and the whole day just is that much better.”
For another friend, it is the perfume Primo! – the knock off of Giorgio Beverly Hills. That is the smell of mom.
Baking cookies. A warm horse saddle. Rose water. A campfire. Laundry from the line.
That’s one of mine. It’s the pumice mechanic soap – that’s the smell of my grandpa. Whenever I use it, I remember the sounds of his auto shop and the feel of sitting on his lap eating lunch with oil-stained hands. I feel his love, over a decade after his passing, though the smell of this orange soap.
Fragrance, smells, take us places. Good and bad.
The last time Jesus was in Bethany, Martha begged Jesus to not go to his dead friend Lazarus, “He stinks, my Lord!” Lazarus had been dead for days, in the desert heat, sealed in an crypt.
People weren’t embalmed back then as they are now. Today, a funeral can be delayed until it is a good time for the family. The deceased looks dead, but pleasantly dead, as if they are sleeping, whether the funeral is held the same day or a few weeks later. Chemicals, refrigerators, makeup… we delay the natural process of decomposition.
This sanitizes death.
Even a hundred years ago death was a much, much smellier affair. We say we send flowers to funerals to lift up the spirits of those who are mourning, and to symbolize life… but we originally sent flowers to help cover up the smell.
The smell of death.
Death, decaying bodies, is one of those smells that sticks in your nose, clings to your clothes, and Martha was so right to hold Jesus back and warn him, “Lord, he reeks!” Don’t remember your dear friend by making a memory of this smell. Remember him living!
The last time Jesus was in Bethany, Martha tried to save him of this experience and smell. He didn’t need to remember his friend Lazarus through the smell of death. Let him remember Lazarus with the smell of meals shared.
As you remember, Jesus ignores Martha’s practicality and tells people to open the stinking, reeking, tomb. He then told Lazarus boldly to come out. Lazarus does so! Still wrapped up in reeking, stinking, grave cloths. When these are removed, Lazarus is just fine. Resurrected.
Everyone who saw this believed in Jesus. Word spread like wildfire that the Messiah had arrived. The Jewish authorities got terrified – for as soon as word reached Rome, Rome would come in and destroy Israel. They put out orders that should Jesus come to the Passover festival, he was to be arrested, and then put to death, for as they argued, “it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50).
Jesus became an outlaw, hiding, until he set his eyes for Jerusalem and knew his hour was coming – the hour, the time, of God.
Today, Jesus has returned the home of the three siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Returned to Bethany, where everyone knows he resurrected Lazarus. Returned to a stone’s throw from Jerusalem where there is an order to capture Jesus. Returned to where the scent of death lingers.
Six days before Passover. A week.
Next week… Jesus knows… he will walk into Jerusalem. He will face his greatest challenges. He will plead with God for another way. He will trust his disciples to continue his mission in his absence. He will not perform miracles selfishly to save himself. He will be betrayed. Paraded about. Mocked. Tortured. Murdered. By the same people who will welcome him with palm branches as their king.
The scent of death doesn’t come so much from Lazarus’ old clothes, but from what Jesus knows is coming. He has told those around him of this, but… so few have understood, or believed.
Like the family last week, Mary is prodigal. Extravagantly wasteful. She wants to give and give and love and love regardless of the cost.
Mary knows Jesus raised her brother from the dead, and in doing so, convinced enough people Jesus is the messiah and got a death warrant on Jesus’ head. Mary knows coming back to Bethany and Jerusalem is the end for Jesus. Mary, a prophet in her own right, sees what is going to happen.
She can smell the death even in the celebratory meal Martha sets.
You remember that we use flowers to cover up the smell of death; in ancient Israel, they sometimes used the exotic perfume called spikenard or nard. It would be rubbed onto the feet of the deceased to help with the smell for the burial. The fragrant plant came from the Himalayans, and was used in the temple worship of God, and was used when put on the head of a king to anoint him.
Mary comes with an entire bottle of the strong, pure oil – worth an entire year’s wages – and dumps it all over Jesus’ feet. Once, she sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him preach, now she uses her own hair like a cloth to wipe Jesus’ feet clean and rub in the nard.
Remember, Jesus will use a cloth to bathe the feet of his disciples, like the lowest of the lowest slaves, and he will tell them to do the same for each other – for they are equals, servants, to one another.
Mary, long before Jesus directly tells the men to humble themselves, to serve one another, understands what Jesus is teaching and doing.
Mary knows Jesus is heading to his death. She is already mourning.
Mary knows to follow Jesus is to extravagantly love others. She is already loving extravagantly.
Mary knows to extravagantly love, a person cannot be too prideful, cannot view others as lower and less than.
Mary knows the scent of death can only be overcome with the fragrance of love.
So she loves- and loves and loves and loves – the entire house is filled with the smell. Was it choking? Like walking into the detergent aisle at the grocery store, or taking a full on sniff of a bottle of perfume? Did the nard soak into everyone’s clothing so that the rest of the trip to Jerusalem they continued to get whiffs of it?
I think Judas must begin protesting even before Mary is done. I like that Jesus defends her. I like that he recognizes she is acting more like a Christ-follower than Judas, and has listened more deeply than the other twelve about what is to come. I like that he honors her as she honors him – and they share the new fragrance memory of nard.
How many weeks did the siblings’ house smell of nard? And Mary’s hair! The fragrance of the nard in her hair had to stay for what seemed like forever. Every time she smelled it, I wonder if she thought of the man who brought her brother back from the dead, the promised Messiah who had came at last, and her Rabbi.
There is a Nigerian saying that the heart is what does the giving… the fingers only let go.
Mary has given from her heart… for Jesus had given from his heart… for God had given from God’s heart.
And like a fragrance, that giving, that love, lingers and persists. And it is stronger than the smell of decay, of separation, and of death. We are about to enter Holy Week – the week beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Holy Saturday. It begins with celebration and ends with death. But, like the nard, the fragrance of God’s love isn’t easily wiped away and gone with. Like nard, it persists into the grave… and is stronger than death. For we have a new week, a new day, a Sunday Easter resurrection waiting – a day where love is poured over us as freely as the costly oil Mary poured on Jesus.
For thus says the Lord: “I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Can you not smell the fragrance of God’s love ever battling the stench life often throws at us?
Can you not perceive, not notice, that spring is among us, and what was dead shall come to life?
As the Psalmist sings,
“Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.” (Psalm 126).
With God, tears of sorrow become tears of joy.