Take a breath and smell this . . .
Bread baked in an oven.
A skunk in your neighborhood.
A rotten egg, diesel engine, or spoiled milk.
A puppy’s breath, orange blossoms, or a Christmas tree.
* * *
There was that time when Jesus ate dinner at Lazarus’ home. What if they’d shared fresh baked bread, grilled lamb, figs just plucked from the tree, and pomegranates with red, sweet juice dribbling down chins? Can you smell the feast?
Were any doors and windows open? Did a gust of wind deliver the aroma of a nearby orchard? Were flowers blooming by the entry? Had Lazarus’ neighbor spent the day pressing new oil from harvested olives? Do you feast in the smells?
Jesus’ disciples crowded into the room. Judas fingered the bag of coins. Peter longed for his family. Thomas ate too much. Matthew told a convoluted story about a tax dodger from Galilee. All of them were road weary and sweat-stained. They couldn’t recall their last bath.
Lazarus’ sister entered and . . .
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair . . .
Readers of John’s Gospel (John 12:1-18) likely know what happens next as Mary tends to Jesus’ feet. Her actions led to Judas’ complaints: the expensive nard she possessed could’ve been sold, the money “given to the poor.” Her actions caused Jesus to comment about those same poor with a perplexing, melancholy response, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Why did Jesus always have to be so right?
Mary rubbed the precious nard onto Jesus’ calloused feet. She literally welcomed the guest. She metaphorically prepared him for impending death. And impending mystery.
John’s Gospel simply declared: The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Can you smell what Mary did? What was that scent like in your imagination?
Did your grandmother, who loved you so much, always wear a particular brand of perfume? What does the pillow of your beloved smell like, with that lingering hint of familiar shampoo? Is the scent that turns your head and beckons a memory tinged with citrus or lilacs or sage? In my current work at a hospice, where I lead grief support groups, bereaved spouses mention fragrances—from morning coffee to evening sea breezes—that abruptly cause tears.
On the printed page or digital screen, it’s hard to tease the nose. And yet maybe I can tantalize or traumatize your sense of smell with a few well-chosen words.
- What of that mystery woman, who you spotted once on a New York street long ago during college’s spring break, wearing Chanel #5?
- What about your favorite bakery and its scrumptious one-of-a-kind croissants and the perfect café au lait?
- There’s the awful trudge down the convalescent hospital’s hallway, with too much industrial cleanser and too many incontinent patients, as you visited your dying parent?
- After a devastating fire or tornado, survivors survey the remnants of what was, with loss forever becoming the stench of lingering smoke and churned earth.
You remember, don’t you?
In her Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman wrote,
Smells spur memories, but they also rouse our dozy senses, pamper and indulge us, help us define our self-image, stir the cauldron of our seductiveness, warn us of danger, lead us into temptation, fan our religious fervor, accompany us to heaven, wed us to fashion, steep us in luxury. Yet, over time, smell has become the least necessary of our senses, “the fallen angel,” as Helen Keller dramatically calls it.
Once, as a hospice chaplain, I grasped the hand of a woman dying from cancer while a nurse tended to the patient’s tumor. A cruel, beast-like tumor had erupted from the body, out of control and wrecking flesh. The nurse had warned me. The wound was gruesome, all rotted flesh, the stench of death on death’s worst day. I held on to her hand. I prayed. I hugged the patient, repelled by the odor and yet desiring to support her. Let skin be cleansed and soul be blessed . . . as much as was humanly possible.
Once I schemed with a church’s worship team to add fragrance to communion. Hours before the morning service began, several folks lugged in their electronic bread makers, tucked them into the room’s corners and flipped the “on” switches. By the time worship began, the sanctuary had filled with a robust, yeasty scent. The nose knows! As we sang Let us break bread together, our bodies were on high alert. A ritual had become sensual; songs song with grumbling tummies!
Mary—as servant, friend and follower—gently rubbed Jesus’ feet. “The house,” the Gospel writer scribed, “filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
We confront, on the path of Lent, life and death. We experience unequal portions of grace and shame, lust and love, hurt and beauty. We witness delight and can never avoid the decay. We touch warm mercy and cruelty that burns. We taste sweet truth and bitter deceit. Along the route that batters and bolsters our faith, may we embrace the whole and holy world.
Inhale. Take a deep breath . . .