The Fifth Sunday in Lent

The Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8
Psalm 126


It is a great pleasure to be here at Christ Church. 

I have known your rector, Bill Danaher, for a very long time. And I have known mother Imogen since her first week as a divinity school student, and now she is your priest! And seeing her yesterday priesting to some of you just made me remember why I like being a divinity school teacher so very much. So it has been a real pleasure to be here with you at Christ Church over this weekend and to be with you now.

Some people’s mothers told them not to talk about religion and politics in public. I grew up in a family where we talked about politics all the time. What my mother said was that I shouldn’t talk about religion or smell in public. Talking about smell, she said, was just sort of generally de clase, and also it might cause people to think about feet. 

So as a preacher, and a divinity school professor, I generally found that hard to avoid talking about religion in public. But I usually managed the other half of my mother’s dictum. Then you get to the middle of the Gospel of John, and it’s kind of hard to avoid the topic of olfaction. So today’s sermon is about smell. And in a way, it’s also about feet. So apologies to my mother who I’m sure is rolling over in her urn. 

“The house was filled with the fragrance of perfume.” Our gospel reading this morning is drawn from a section of John that is deeply obsessed with smell. What has happened in the chapter before today’s gospel reading is that Lazarus, one of Jesus’ best friends had died. And Jesus pays a graveside visit and orders the stone that has been laid in front of the cave where Lazarus is buried – Jesus orders the stone to be rolled away. 

And Lazarus’ sister, Martha protests. She says, “But Lord, he’s been in there for like four days and the smell is pretty bad.” Or as the King James more piquantly puts it, “He stinketh,” said Martha. 

But Jesus orders the stone moved away nonetheless. And then he raises Lazarus from the dead. And now, just a few verses later, Lazarus is throwing a dinner party. And it’s a dinner party that becomes a century extravaganza. Martha is there, she is as usual, serving dinner. She’s been in the kitchen all day long cooking an elaborate lentil stew, and baking a bumpy cake. And as usual, her sister Mary was nowhere to be found when Martha was doing this.

But then here comes Mary, she comes bearing a pound of perfume. And her hair is down and tangled. And she bathes Jesus with her perfume. She saturates him with it. And the whole house is filled with the fragrance. 

The perfume Mary used was nard which smells kind of like old spice. It has a wooden smell, like a forest, or like the smell of moss. And nard has not just a particular aroma, it has also always been thought – both then and now – that nard has healing properties. And in particular, both in antiquity and today, people have thought that nard promotes uterine health. 

So this might seem sort of odd, why didn’t Mary perfume Jesus with the scent of lemons, say? The scent of lemons is thought to promote feelings of peace. Or why didn’t she perfume him with sandalwood which is said to cure both dry skin and irritability? Why scent Jesus with a scent known to promote a healthy uterus? It’s a little strange. Or maybe it’s a hint. This perfuming – Jesus tells us in the text – is a preparation for His death. And the death that Jesus will meet soon after this dinner, the death we will meet on Good Friday. It’s a particular kind of death. It’s a death that brings about new life. 

So Mary is making Jesus not only perfumed but also reproductively health so that He can birth new life for us on the cross. The house was filled with the fragrance of perfume. It’s not actually typical of scripture to speak this elaborately about smell. Why does the Gospel of John want us to know the scent of Lazarus’ house? The scent of Mary’s hand and hair, the now woodsy scent of Jesus’ body, the smell of moss?

Have you ever noticed how smelling something can trigger a memory? You walk outside your front door after the first snow of winter and that smell of newly-fallen snow just takes you right back to childhood sledding, or you smell pencil shavings and suddenly you’re sitting in your desk in Mrs. Miller’s fifth grade classroom. 

Neuroscientists have found that because of the physical proximity of our olfactory nerve to our amygdala and hippocampus which largely control mood and memory, because the olfactory nerve is so close to our mood and memory processors, smell can trigger memories and emotions more powerfully than sound, or sight, or touch. It’s of course true that hearing an old song can trigger a memory but smell does that more powerfully. 

And one of the particular emotional responses that smell can produce is something psychologists call, “olfactory comfort.” This is the term that psychologists give to the way that a scent can help calm people when people are distressed by the absence of someone they love – olfactory comfort. 

That’s why if your beloved is away on a trip, you might sleep in his pajamas. It’s why a nurse in Minnesota, having observed that a child feeling intense separation anxiety, was reassured by a garment with his mother’s smell. That nurses patented a soft shirt that could be easily converted into a baby blanket so that mom could wear the shirt for a few hours before heading off to work, or heading out on a date and then the baby, now wrapped and comforted in and by her scent would be less distressed when his mother steps out the door.

Mary is not just preparing Jesus for His death. Mary is also preparing herself for His death. She’s preparing herself for His absence and her grief. So now, whenever she smells nard, whenever Lazarus or Martha smell nard the scent will trigger a memory of Jesus. Nard will be marked with His memory. And maybe the scent will soothe them. Years after His death, when His friends smell that wooded scent, the smell will bring Jesus close. So Mary is not just preparing Jesus for His death, she’s also preparing herself.

This morning’s passage from the Gospel of John is one of the last discussions of smell in the Bible. But it’s not the absolute last discussion of smell. A few books later, in his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul will write – he’ll write something that’s actually very familiar to most of us Episcopalians. He’ll write, “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself an offering and a sacrifice to God.” This is a familiar verse because it is often the verse that your priest quotes halfway through the Sunday service as we pivot from the announcements to the Eucharistic table, “Walk in love as Christ loved us etcetera,” Ephesians 5:2. 

But for reasons I have never been able to discover, priests never quote the whole verse. The whole verse actually says, “And walk in love as Christ hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a sweet smelling savor.” Or as another translation has it, “Walk in love etcetera, as Christ gave Himself, an offering and a sacrifice to God, into an aroma of a sweet smell.” Priests never quote the whole thing. It’s possible my mother has gotten to them all.

Well, what was that sweet smell that Paul is saying Jesus emitted or stepped into on the cross? Probably Paul means it metaphorically. He means to connect the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to all of the Old Testament sacrifices of incense which Exodus and Leviticus are always telling us were acceptable to God in part because they smelled so lovely.

But I’d like to read Paul a little more literalistically (sic) and say it was the nard, that sweet-smelling savor was the pound of nard in which Mary had lately bathed Jesus. We know that on the cross, Jesus felt alone. We know he had been abandoned by some of His dearest friends. And we know that on the cross He cried out in dereliction sensing that He had been abandoned even by God the Father. Maybe on the cross, the aroma of nard called to mind Mary and Lazarus. Maybe the aroma soothed Him and made Him feel less alone.

And then there is another use of smell even later in the Bible. It’s in Revelation which is the very last book of the Bible. And there the writer says that the prayers of the saints are golden bowls full of incense. It’s an arresting image; when you pray, your body is a golden bowl and your prayers are so much incense rising up to God.

A few years ago, my friend Robert died. About 14 months after his death, his widow Mazzy, asked me to keep her company while she sorted through his clothes. She was giving some of them to her nephews, and some of them to Goodwill. But she was keeping his shirts, the button-down Oxfords that he’d worn everyday to his law office. Mazzy now wore them herself. She wore them to sleep in, and she wore them to run errands. And she swore she could still smell him on those shirts 14 months after he died. 

Smell is haunted by absence; the baby longing for his mother, the widow longing for her mate. Smell keeps us close to one another in our absence. I left Mazzy’s house that day thinking maybe she had showed me something about God. Maybe we should picture God as a widow. 

God’s beloved spouse has been taken away and God mourns. The funeral happens on a Tuesday. There are the casseroles, and the sympathetic notes. God receives a few visits and phone calls from angels. Perhaps though some angels stay away because they don’t want to impose. And then a few weeks pass and then the angels just go back to their seraphic business of singing hymns, and delivering messages, and mending their robes. And God is left alone in God’s grief. 

That I think is what our absence feels like to God. Those hours, or days, or sometimes years when we are far off from God when we are distracted, or ignore God, when we remain at a distance. That absence is not philosophical or abstract. It is real and present to God. And it is grief striking. 

And so we come together on Sunday to pray, or by ourselves, tonight, or tomorrow, or the day after that. We return to God in prayer. And our prayers are incense. They smell like moss, or like the floor of a forest. God is grieved by our absence. But our incense prayers soothe Him. The house was filled with the fragrance of perfume.