By Susan Snook
Scientists tell us that our sense of smell – our olfactory nerve – leads to a different part of our brain than our other senses do. Our other senses lead to the parts of our brain that work things out rationally; our sense of smell leads to the part of our brain that processes memory, mood, and emotion – the oldest part of our brain.
The strong connection between smell and emotion probably explains why I can catch a whiff of Chanel No. 5 in a crowd and instantly be seven years old again, kissing my mother good night as she prepares to go out for the evening on a Saturday night with my father, wearing her nicest dress and her pearls. It explains why the smell of fresh bread means comfort and happiness for us. It explains why fresh cut grass can take us back to long hours spent running around outside in our childhood, covered with grass stains and dirt.
And you have to think that the smell of nard, the perfume in today’s gospel, has stronger associations than most others for the people of Jesus’ time. For one thing, it has a very strong odor. I smelled that smell in Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, on the anointing stone where supposedly Jesus’ body was laid out and anointed for burial. People still come to that spot and anoint the stone, weeping and praying and crying out their love for Jesus as they rub it with oil, so throughout the whole vast church, from the place of Jesus’ death to the tomb where he arose you can turn a corner and catch another whiff of the sweet scent of nard.
Nard is a smell that lasts a long time, and it’s a smell that for the people of Jesus’ time would mean love and it would mean death. It was the spice used to anoint dead bodies for burial, family members saving up for years to buy a jar of oil that was worth a year’s wages or more, but was an important part of their family inheritance, lovingly passing it down over generations to anoint each member of the family as they died.
So for Mary of Bethany, Jesus’ friend in the gospel today, the smell of nard would have reminded her of her parents and her grandparents — her feelings of deep love for them and the feeling of anguished loss at their deaths. And it would have forcefully brought home to her a more recent memory – the death of her brother Lazarus, and his awakening to life again.
You remember the story – Lazarus and Mary and Martha were good friends of Jesus. Lazarus becomes ill, Mary and Martha send word to Jesus to come quickly. But Jesus lingers where he is, and finally arrives at Lazarus’ tomb four days after Lazarus died. Martha declares her faith in Jesus with an edge of blame: “If you had been here my brother would not have died!” – and Jesus makes one of the most startling statements in the gospels. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
And he proceeds to prove it, with what is in the gospel of John the most astounding of his seven signs (remember that Jesus’ miracles in John are not just miracles, but signs that point to a deeper reality about who he is and what God is doing through him). In this climactic sign, Jesus stands before Lazarus’ tomb and commands the people to roll away the stone. Martha, the practical one, protests because Lazarus has been dead 4 days, and already there is a stench. And surely that stench of the tomb is one of the most primitive and awful of the smells our brains know, surely it is the one that ties us most closely to emotions of grief and loss.
But Jesus persists, and as the stone is rolled away, shouts “Lazarus! Come forth!” And the dead man emerges, blinking in the sunlight, still wrapped in his grave clothes, still smelling of the mingled smells of the tomb and the sweet-spicy nard. And Jesus commands, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Let him go free from the tomb, free from the fear of death, free to live in full knowledge that God’s love is stronger than death, God’s love calls us out of the tomb, God’s love calls us out of all grave clothes that bind us — God’s love calls us into eternity. God’s love unbinds us, and lets us go.
But the powers of the world don’t like to believe that God’s love can overcome death, because their most powerful tool is death. And hearing of Lazarus’ new life, the rulers in Jerusalem decide that Jesus has to be stopped. They will show who is in charge of death. And Jesus must die.
So Jesus wisely goes away for a while. But now it is time for Passover. And Jesus comes back to Bethany, a small town in the hills above Jerusalem, from where you can look down into the city and see the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. And the night before Palm Sunday, when he plans to go riding on a donkey down the hill into the city, his friends give a dinner for him. Lazarus, his friend, is sitting next to him, leaning against him at dinner, possibly with the mingled scents of the tomb and the nard still on him. And Mary goes into the back room, gets their family inheritance, the spice that is worth maybe $25,000 in our terms. And she does something that seems to make no sense at all: she breaks the earthen clay jar of sweet oil and pours it out on Jesus.
Not only does she extravagantly waste her family’s inheritance. She breaks lots of rules at the same time she breaks this earthen jar. She anoints his feet, something you don’t do for living people – only for dead ones. She loosens her hair, something an honorable woman doesn’t do in front of men. She touches Jesus, something an unmarried woman doesn’t do to a man she isn’t related to. And she fills the house with the smell of love, love that follows a person to the grave, love that survives death, love that will always remember.
By breaking open her family’s inheritance, its provision for all future deaths, Mary is saying that death has no more power over her and her family, she is showing her faith that she will have no more need to anoint anyone for death. And she is preparing Jesus for the tomb, the day before he willingly goes riding toward it.
In this one act, Mary marks Jesus as a member of her family. She pours out a love so strong, so intense, that it is not bound by any customs or practices of her time. She prepares him for an ordeal that will overwhelm him with terrible physical sensations. And this act of love makes a difference to him: we know because just a few days later, at his last supper with his disciples, Jesus will echo Mary’s act of love — as she knelt and washed his feet with oil, and wiped them with her hair, he will kneel and wash his disciples’ feet, and wipe them with his garment, mirroring her pure act of love with his own, and commanding us to do the same. Her love for Jesus becomes his love for his disciples becomes our love for the world, the love of God and the love of human beings all intermingled and overflowing.
And surely, in the middle of his ordeal on the cross, the sweet smell of nard will stay with him; surely, through his whole time on the cross, as he endures what he has to endure, he will from time to time catch a sudden smell of Mary’s gift, reminding him somewhere deep inside, in the oldest part of his brain, that even after he has been betrayed and denied and abandoned, that he is deeply loved.
And so, Mary has prepared Jesus for his death and for his burial. She has recognized that no matter what comes, love is stronger than death. And she has poured out her love for God’s Son.
The question is, what is our love worth to God? Wouldn’t you think God would be right there agreeing with Judas that a better use for such an expensive gift would be to sell it and give the money to the poor? Shouldn’t our gifts be practical, useful? The thing is that we are commanded to love God and love our neighbor. When Jesus says, the poor you will always have with you, he is not saying not to serve the poor – in fact, he’s quoting from Deuteronomy, that explicitly says because you will always have the poor with you, you should always serve them.
But Jesus knows that loving your neighbor comes from a deeper source. It comes from loving God. And we pragmatic Americans, like Judas, may want to see measurable results from loving God – we may want to see effectiveness. But it seems that God doesn’t measure love in terms of effectiveness. God’s love for us, after all, is extravagant, overflowing, like a broken jar of oil costing a year’s income.
Christians believe that God’s love overflowed into creation and caused all things to come to be. And God’s love overflowed in and from Jesus, who came into the world as the Son of God, whose love was poured out for us, whose body like ours was bound together from the elements of the universe, an earthen jar of clay, but was broken on the cross, so that his love could spill out – a love that was stronger than death, a love that would not stay locked in a tomb, a love that overflows to everlasting life.
And what this story tells us is that God’s love is not only poured out for us; God actually hungers for our love in return — our overflowing, extravagant love. That God loves us with an intensity so passionate that God’s Son would rather die than be separated from us, and that God yearns for us to love him in the same extravagant way Jesus loves us.
God yearns for us with the same kind of intensity that Paul showed in the epistle reading — crying out passionately, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
That’s the love God wants from us. A love that is nurtured by worship and reading the stories of God. A love that is strengthened by spending time with Jesus in daily prayer and in simple conversation about the events of our lives and our world, and by spending time with him in the sacraments and in the people he loves. A love that overflows from us into the people around us, so we can’t help telling them about Christ’s love.
A love that is the most important thing in our lives, so that our love too is extravagant and overflowing, carrying with it the sweet smell of God’s love, a smell that seeps into our hair and clothes and pores, and every now and then brings us scent of love that will never wear off, love that overcomes death and the grave and carries us to everlasting life.
The Rt. Rev. Susan Snook is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.