“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (Jn.12:3)
Over these weeks of Lent, with our Wednesday soup suppers, I’ve been routinely preparing a soup to bring and share at our soup supper.
And as the soup simmers on the stove top in my home, how that aroma, that wonderful savoury smell of simmering soup fills the whole house, reaching almost every corner, every room, upstairs and downstairs!
Amazing how that aroma can so quickly disperse and “take over” the air in a house!
And what a pleasing, soothing, comforting aroma it is!
It’s quite remarkable the effect the sense of smell has on our emotional state… how we feel.
The comforting feelings we get, for example, when we pick up the scent of a loved one on a pillow case, or on his or her clothes hanging in the closet.
But also the discomfort we feel when we catch a whiff of body odour.
I can’t imagine in Jesus’ day over two thousand years ago they had the profusion of soaps and deodorants lining the shelves of our supermarkets that we have today, nor the kind of almost obsessive compulsion we have in North America to wash ourselves as often as possible.
In the hot, dusty desert of the Judean Wilderness, “body odour” I’d imagine would’ve been a far more frequent every-day reality, and people would’ve be far more accustomed to those smells than we are today.
It might also disturb some of us to imagine the possibility of Jesus himself going about among people, smelling unwashed.
And yet, that’s a very likely possibility.
But they did have scented perfumes with strong fragrances in Jesus’ day, which they used to cover over strong unpleasant odours.
The kind that Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with was “pure nard” – a relatively expensive oil – from the flowering plant “spikenard” which grows in the Himalayas of India, Nepal and China.
The underground stems can be crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic, amber-coloured essential oil, which is very thick in consistency.
When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with this pure nard oil, she is, to a certain extent, performing a very practical, every-day function: cleaning, perfuming, and hydrating Jesus’ very dry, desert-parched and likely smelly feet.
But there’s something more going on here.
And we know that because of how Mary anoints Jesus’ feet:
Mary uses her hair.
Unusual. She didn’t have to. Her hands and fingers would’ve sufficed.
But she uses her hair.
An arresting image – don’t you think? – one that speaks of a deep friendship, an intimacy between Mary and Jesus.
Not only does Mary use her hair to anoint Jesus’ feet, she also uses an excessive amount of oil – one pound – more than what would be needed.
Here we have Mary completely abandoning herself – without a stitch of self-consciousness – in this affectionate, lavish, unabashed expression of love for Jesus.
An arresting image.
As a close friend of Jesus, Mary would’ve been aware of the danger Jesus was in.
The religious leaders had already begun plotting to “silence” this disturber Jesus who was, in their eyes, upsetting the `Pax Romana’, the peace, with his disruptions to the Temple sacrificial system, and his controversial acts of love and inclusion toward the lost, lowly and lonely in society …. all of which was beginning to attract a remarkably large following, and in the eyes of the guardians of the religious status quo, a deeply worrying following.
Mary had this foreboding feeling that things weren’t soon going to end well for her close friend Jesus.
So it is in the context of deep worry for her dear friend Jesus, that Mary does what she does.
We can talk more about Judas’ reaction to Mary’s act – which is very interesting – but to me, what I think is worthy of our pondering this morning, is Mary’s close and deep friendship with Jesus, her intimacy with Christ.
Her action shows how high a value she placed on her relationship with him.
Knowing and befriending Jesus, was everything to her.
I can almost imagine Mary speaking the very words of the Apostle Paul in the Philippian passage:
“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord … I want to know Christ…”
Knowing and befriending Jesus was the essential foundation in Mary’s life, out of which all her other actions, words, and relationships flowed … making her life meaningful, purposeful and abundant.
And what about us?
… Like Mary, having that growing intimacy with Christ, that capacity simply to enjoy, rest in, and take comfort from simply being in the presence of God in Christ, our “best friend”… ?
… Like Mary, abandoning ourselves fully to the wonderful experience of being fully known by a God who loves us through and through … ?
Good comes of that relationship, like a sweet-smelling, soothing fragrance spreading outwards, dispersing everywhere.
As Paul said elsewhere: “We are the aroma of Christ…”
Knowing God’s effusive abundance towards us, causes us to be effusively abundant with others.
Knowing divine mercy and grace toward us, begets our mercy and grace toward others.
The fragrance of our loving, self-giving actions are telltale signs of a God who is nearby, and whose love for us and the world is very present and real.
Just recently I was reading of a couple who, in their house, kept a room, called a “Christ Room”, specifically for welcoming, from time to time, a recently released inmate from a local prison … to live with them for a few months at a time … as a way of easing the person’s transition back into society.
I think of that very generous action – and am inspired and uplifted by it… just like noticing a pleasing and sweet-smelling fragrance filling the air.
If you get a chance this morning, take a look in the hallway behind me here.
The lift that is soon going to be installed back here, is beginning to take shape… but all because of a couple of people – Terry Kavelmann, Steve Dickin, Ron Roeder, Dennis Diebolt — who’ve been giving so much of their volunteer time and energy to make this lift happen.
An extravagant, effusive outpouring of time, energy and love.
Truly uplifting, inspiring. Like a sweet-smelling fragrance.
Our prayer is not only that we would find renewal our own personal friendship with the Holy One, God in Christ, but also that our lives, our words and actions, would be like a pleasing aroma for the benefit and uplift of others around us.