Lent 5C John 12:1-8
What is the scent of love?
Scents are some of the most mysterious and magical of our sensory experiences. Even the description of an aroma can trigger our imaginations and memories in ways that many other things cannot.
In one of my current favorite novels, there are magical bottles filled with memory scents. Imagine that! Containing the memory of a wedding day bouquet, a healing bowl of chicken soup made with kindness, or a crackling late fall bonfire within a bottle to review or share whenever you wished.
In the Harry Potter world, there are love potions that smell different to every person based upon what attracts them; what they love. This, as well as the scent memory bottles, is a fascinating idea based on the notion that scents are deeply connected to our subconscious mind. So, if you were in the presence of a Harry Potter love potion, what would you smell? What is the scent of love to you?
Our sense of smell is directly linked to the emotion and memory parts of our brains. A scent can remind us of past events sometimes even more vividly than sight or sound. Every time I smell white vinegar, I think of Easter because the dye for Easter eggs needs vinegar. It makes me think of dying eggs with my mom in my grandmother’s kitchen each year.
The smell of sawdust transports me in an instant to my father’s workshop at the Highschool where he taught, and to him, who often smelled like lumber and sweat and his old pickup truck. The memories of my home, like most people, are wrapped up in scents: honeysuckle from the monstrous vine enveloping the tree where I stood at the bus stop every day, and fresh turned earth in the garden with the scent of huge, tangy red tomatoes and crisp green beans and snap peas. Warm thick aroma of coffee drifting in to the back bedrooms at 5:30 am. Sheets my mother took right off the clothesline that smell like the sun and the wind tangled up together; something no fabric softener can really imitate. The oily paint and gesso smells for my mother’s latest art projects and clean cotton, wool and linen fabrics folded neatly in the sewing room waiting to be made into some new dress. We all have scents that remind us of home. Baking bread or other special foods, perfumes or other aromas can be time machines or emotional roller coasters for us.
Church, too, has distinct smells. Covered dish dinners with the warm, rich, unmistakable smell of comfort food! Coffee on Sunday mornings, that rich smell preceding the green light on the coffemaker. Hairspray and aftershave and other scents that go with being dressed in church-clothes. The sulphur smell of blown-out matches and the faint smoke of extinguished candles. The sweet and strange scent of wine on the breath of mom or dad after communion or in the cup as we drink it ourselves.
There are other scents I associate with worship, too. Magnolia trees are one. There was a huge magnolia tree outside the church where I grew up and when it was in bloom their milky soft smell filled the narthex. And from my father’s funeral—the freshly turned earth, the sharp, acid smell of red clay dirt and the damp moss on the rock wall beside his grave and the cool, dark, ancient scent of the woods beyond it.
When I have asked some people about what scent they associated with church, some said incense. The smell of incense is one of those unusual things that seems to have a bodily presence of its own. Its sweet but mysterious scent fills a room, even a huge one like this, in almost no time. It slips into corners and closets. It clings to our clothes, hair and skin. And it lingers. For days it remains present like a faint reminder of perfume after the wearer leaves the room.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear a story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive oil. And the house was filled with the fragrance of this perfume. The extravagance of this act is undermined by Judas’ snide comment about how this SHOULD have been sold and the money given to the poor. Or, more likely, to his pocket! But Jesus is quick to defend her actions and reminds them that they will not always have him with them.
I wonder what memories Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the others would recall years later when they smelled this same perfume? Would they be like us, and be transported in time to a memory? Would they recall this vivid scene that took place in Lazarus’ home where their teacher, their leader, their Lord had been with them? Would they, now knowing him as the Resurrected Messiah, remember the times the Savior ate and drank with them? What he taught them? The sound of his voice?
It is an act of love that Mary does for Jesus by anointing his feet with this precious oil; an extravagant gesture that fills the whole house with the aroma of her love. And, as the beginning of the text hints, Jesus is getting ready to do an even greater act of extravagant love for her and for all of us. A week after this anointing, Jesus will go to his death, for their sake, for our sake, for the sake of the world, to give us the extravagant gift of the forgiveness of our sins. He will be resurrected to give us the extravagant gift of new and eternal life with him.
Keith Miller, an Episcopalian author and an evangelist, writes in his book titled The Scent of Love:
Imagine a group of grown men and women, so happy at nine o’clock in the morning that people thought they were drunk (see Acts 2:1-13). Now change the scene until you can see a man being executed by his fellow citizens outside a city gate. As they are trying to crush his head with the stones they are throwing, he looks up and offers his spirit to an invisible God, and then says to this God, “Father, forgive them they don’t understand” (Acts 8:59-60 paraphrased)
This strange combination of irrepressible joy and the ability to face calmly the most basic and fearful problems of life—even rejection and death—created an aura around the little bunch of new Christians. And this aura permeated the air of first-century Palestine. The way they lived together gave off a kind of haunting spiritual scent which drew people to them. And it was this unselfconscious scent of love which proved the essence of that which we have come to call Evangelism.”
Miller says that we are dipped into a “pool of love” that surrounds Jesus, which heals us and makes us new. When we are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are drenched in this extravagant gift of love. It permeates everything. It clings to our skin, our hair, our clothes. Like the anointing oil, it fills the house with its fragrance. Our house here at the church and hour homes where we live. In fact, like the aroma of incense that clings to everything, we carry it with us. The baptized life is drenched in the scent of love that is passed on to everyone we know. Our families, our children, our friends and even to strangers. We make this scent known in the way we treat one another, in telling the story of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. We make known the scent of love in living out and passing on our faith every day.
So, what is the scent of love? What does God smell like? The amazing thing about our God is that he is not some remote, unknowable distant deity. Nor is he a statue with feet of clay. He became a real flesh and blood human like us to eat and drink, sleep and laugh and cry just like us. With a heart and a brain like ours and with real feet to be anointed with perfumed oil. He became part of the world so he could save the world.
I think God smells like sawdust and fresh sheets from the clothesline. Like the crisp green summer smell under your nails from stringing green beans. Like magnolia trees and the deep, dark, earthy forest. Like sweat. Like blood. Like freshly turned earth. Like the exotic, mysterious smell of incense and oil. Like the damp musty smell of caves and tombs. Like a fresh breeze blowing past the stone at the entrance to that tomb. Like bread. Like wine. Like love.