Fragrance has deep significance for us. It’s supposed to be one of the best memory triggers. Even years on, a certain aroma can take us back to a particular time and place.
Allegedly to increase the chance of selling your house you should bake bread and roast some coffee to create a nice homely aroma before the prospective buyers come around to view. And there’s the urban myth that Queen Elizabeth II thinks that every factory and office in the Commonwealth smells of new paint!
Our Gospel reading tells us about Mary, washing the feet of Jesus with a pint of pure nard – or spikenard in some translations. I’ll use the word spikenard otherwise I know I’ll end up saying ‘lard’ instead of ‘nard’. A pint of lard on Jesus brings an entirely different picture – and smell – to mind…
I’ve got some spikenard here. It’s only a tiny bottle. I put the very smallest drop on the scrap of cotton that you passed around and smelt earlier. You were 50/50 on whether you liked it or not with most of the men not in favour! Imagine if I poured a pint of it on you… The next story in John is Jesus entering Jerusalem. Perhaps the crowd were waving those palm leaves and saying: “What’s that funny smell?” And Jesus is saying “Er, yep, that’s me. Sorry about that!”
So, the house was filled with the smell of perfume. You wonder, for those present that day, whether the smell of spikenard forever reminded them of that one precious, intimate moment in time together? Whether it triggered a remembrance of that all-too-brief interlude a few days before the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus?
I wonder, with the quantity applied, whether the fragrance still lingered heavily in the days that followed? Through the week leading up to the cross and even to the day itself, was there still a hint of spikenard on Jesus? Did the soldiers smell it on his feet when they hammered the nails in? On the hem of the robe when it was divided up?
It’s amazing isn’t it, deep in Lent when it can all seem quite sombre, where we don’t have flowers in church and where we give things up, that we have this Gospel story of utter exuberance and extravagance? This incredible outpouring of love and devotion. The tenderness of Mary and the acceptance of Jesus could almost make you feel uncomfortable, voyeuristic. Which of us would do such a thing in private, let alone in public?
By reading the Gospel in small chunks like we do we sometimes miss the story lines that the writers weave together. Here in John we have the fragrant smell of Jesus set against the stench of Lazarus in the previous chapter. We have Mary here washing the feet of Jesus – then Jesus washing the feet of the disciples in the next chapter. We have two dying, both laid in a tomb and both brought back to life – though one, Lazarus, would die again. Then the generosity of Mary in contrast to the meanness of Judas.
We also have Mary’s innate wisdom and insight. Of them all, Mary perceived what would happen next to Jesus. She comprehended how this would all work out. Those hours listening to him, at his feet, had been well spent. This was an anointing for what was to follow.
Spikenard wasn’t just any perfume. It had meaning and significance. In the Song of Songs it was used by the woman when with her lover the King. It was used as incense on the altar in the temple in Jerusalem. In Homer’s Iliad it was used by Achilles to anoint his dead friend. At one time it’s a symbol of love, holiness and death.
In our reading from Isaiah we have that wonderful line: See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Isaiah was talking to the Jewish nation about their restoration to Israel from Babylon. That God would remove what seemed like insurmountable obstacles to make it happen, to do something fresh and innovative. Doing something new to bring them home.
Bringing us home
And in the Gospel, God was again about to do something new. He was about to die on the cross for us, to bring us into eternal relationship. He was going to remove all the obstacles that separated us from him, to bring us home.
Mary perceived it and did something joyous and extravagant and over the top.
But what of that troubling verse when Jesus says that what was lavished on him was OK because the poor are always with us? Well, I’m reminded of the passage about the poor, the widows, the orphaned, those in hunger and those in prison. Basically, anyone in need of our help. That in helping these we were helping Christ.
Perhaps we’re being told that every now and then it’s alright to be over the top and exuberant in how we do that? To do something for those that need help that may seem slightly awkward to others or make no commercial sense – but to do it anyway. Perhaps to make a really big donation to charity? Or open our home to someone?
Seize the day
Over Christmas there were some 15-minute plays on the radio inspired by Bible stories. One of them involved Jesus (pronounced Hay-Zeus), a paramedic who didn’t really believe in God, and his colleague Attila, who teased Jesus about his name.
They were called out to a single woman, who was called Laura Lazarus. The woman’s heart had stopped and Jesus brought her back to life with a defibrillator. Laura then told Jesus that she was pregnant – and there was a moment when they both panicked that the electric shock had killed the baby. Jesus waited at hospital after his shift had finished to make sure that Laura and her baby were fine. Jesus conceded that it must be a miracle that both had survived. They went for a coffee together in the canteen. A little nervously Laura Lazarus asked Jesus out on a date. He agreed. And they went, there and then. The message was to seize the day. To make the most of what presents itself.
Blowing the doors off
That same morning Sir Michael Caine was on the radio reading extracts from his autobiography. The punchline was that we should make the most of what we have and get on with life. To quote the title of the book, which is also a line from one of his best-known films ‘The Italian Job’, he was telling us that we should “blow the bloody doors off”.
And that’s what Mary did. She seized the day and blew the doors off.
Perhaps we should do the same… Amen.
[This talk was delivered by Ian Banks at St James, Heywood on Sunday 7th April 2019. It’s based on John 12: 1-8 and Isaiah 43: 16-21. For more by Ian please follow this link. Thanks to Matt Skinner who inspired this reflection.]