When Chris’ grandma Roth died, all of the grandkids gathered at her house hoping to find treasure. Now, everyone had their own version of treasure. Erica wanted these pudding cup things. Chris was hoping to find any signs or memories from his own mother, who is passed. I knew what I wanted. I wanted Grandma’s cast-iron skillets. I knew that she was the kind of woman that had to have at least one. So, I opened the formica cabinets one by one. I was greeted by old plates, dusty cups, outdated canned goods, and finally, three cast-iron skillets. I made sure no one else wanted them and then claimed them for myself. I wanted the cast-iron skillets for a few reasons, but the strongest reason being that I have always wanted one. To be able to get one that was already used and seasoned seemed like a big win for me.
Fast forward almost a year and I got one of the skillets out to make some lovely hamburgers. It was one of those days where it was frigid and too cold to grill. So, inside burgers it was. The burgers were letting off that lovely hamburger smell and I was getting hungry. Chris walked in the door after a long day, not knowing what I was cooking for dinner and also not knowing how I was cooking. “Hey!” He said. He stopped and breathed in what I thought was the smell of my awesome hamburgers. And instead exhaled and said “I know this sounds weird, but it smells like the farm in here.” And I was reminded once again how powerful the sense of smell really is.
We all have those smells that take us back to certain moments in our lives or remind us of certain people in our lives. Maybe it’s the smell of gasoline, or chocolate chip cookies, or Old Spice, or maybe, like Chris, it’s the smell that an old cast-iron skillet gives off. But, it happens in an instant: scented air fills our nostrils and we are transported. I think that often we don’t give our sense of smell enough credit. But all it takes the slightest whiff and the memories are rushing back in.
Smell is a very powerful part of our Gospel reading today. The disadvantage to this written word is that we can’t see what is happening, we can’t see where everyone is sitting, we can’t watch Martha rush around trying to get dinner served, we can’t watch Mary sneak off to get perfume. The other disadvantage to reading the story is that we can’t smell what is going on in the story. We can’t smell what Martha is cooking. We can’t smell those people that are gathered there. After all, these are people that were spending a lot of time in a dusty, hot place; most likely they had an odor to them. And then there was Lazarus. Let’s not forget that the reason all of these people were gathered is because Mary and Martha were throwing a celebration party because their brother Lazarus had been raised from the dead. Mary and Martha had expressed a concern about his stench before Jesus even raised him from the dead. Lazarus most likely still smelled like death.
All of those smells are filling a small space. Just when the noses of those gathered there are on the brink of overload, a new smell enters the room: nard perfume. The strangeness of this smell is only complicated by the amount (the literal amount and then the cost amount) and the method of use of this perfume. Mary had taken down her hair, which is not something respectable women did in the company of men, put herself in a place of vulnerability, and anointed Jesus’ feet with this perfume. With her hair. When you slow down to think about it, this is a totally odd story.
While it may not seem like it, this act of Mary anointing Jesus is all about love. The smell that filled the room most likely conjured up a few thoughts. But, the strongest thought was probably death. Mary was preparing Jesus for death. Mary is Jesus’ long time friend and she is preparing him for death with an extravagant show of love. And it doesn’t sit well with those gathered, especially Judas. Judas thinks that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Now, let’s not lose sight of Judas’ real purpose here: he was only looking out for himself. He would make it a habit of stealing from the poor. He knew how much that perfume was worth and so he knew how much money could have been in his pocket.
Mary was, in her own way, a prophet. And by anointing Jesus’ feet, she had a clear message: the man being anointed was a man marked for death. And Jesus doesn’t want her to stop. Not because he is enjoying this little weird foot bath, but because Mary is speaking with her actions. She is, once again, reminding everyone gathered that Jesus is destined for a death that everyone would rather avoid. The perfume, which now fills the air with its smell, was expensive. It could have benefited many people. But instead, Mary is preparing something even more expensive, something that will benefit the entire world, something that still benefits us even to this day. God is shown through this extravagant act; God’s mercy is made real in the excess.
Shortly after being anointed, Jesus will gather his disciples one more time and feed them. He will then do as Mary has done and wash their feet and command them to love one another. He will then be arrested and marched off to his death. And as those nails are driven into his hands and feet, the costly perfume made with nard will let off its smell once more; reminding all who are gathered there to be of love and service to one another. The disciples will deny Jesus. They will avoid his gaze. Jesus will cry out on the cross and perhaps the smell of that perfume will fill his nostrils, reminding him that he is not alone after all.
The perfume was poured out for Jesus and he will be poured out for the world. A stench of death will fill the air once more. And with it, freedom from our sins. Jesus’ life was worth much more than an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. And he didn’t hesitate to give it. Mary did what she did out of love. And it reeked. Jesus did what he did out of love. And it reeked. How were we to know that the smell of death would soon be replaced by the smell of an empty tomb and our freedom over sin and death? How were we to know that the smell of death would soon be replaced with the smell of Easter morning; dew, sunshine, and confusion? The smell of blood would soon be the smell of healing. And it all reeks of love.