Sermon: “The Fragrance of Life” (March 13, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Fragrance of Life” (John 12:1-3)
March 13, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

John’s account of the gospel is structured around seven miracles or “signs” of Jesus, each of which revealed the “grace upon grace” Jesus gives to sinners, and each of which revealed his glory and identity as the Son of God (John 1:14, 16).  The seventh and climactic of these signs was Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha, and when Jesus had arrived to their hometown of Bethany after Lazarus’ death, Mary thought it was too late.  As she was weeping Mary told Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus went to the tomb, wept for a while, and then to everyone’s shock, commanded, “Take the stone away.”  Martha objected, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  But Jesus insisted, so the stone was rolled away.  Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” and as John put it, “the dead man came out” (John 11:32-43).

The stench of death was replaced by the fragrance of life.

Many responded to this miracle with belief.  In fact, even some of the skeptical and critical religious leaders “believed in him” (John 11:45).  But other religious leaders, especially members of the powerful Sanhedrin began to plot in earnest to have Jesus arrested and killed.

The annual festival of Passover was only a week away, and Jesus and his disciples were among the thousands of Jews making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  On their way they stopped once again in Bethany and were hosted at the house of Lazarus for a dinner in Jesus’ honor—and that is the setting of today’s gospel reading.

Many were gathered around the table with Jesus and Lazarus.   Can you imagine what they were discussing that evening?  In the middle of the dinner Mary, overwhelmed with gratitude for Jesus’ raising her brother from the dead, overwhelmed by the grace and glory of Jesus the Son of God, responded with an overwhelming act of worship.

John writes, “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”  This was an unbelievably costly gift for Mary to bestow on Jesus.  This particular perfume, nard, was likely imported from India, and incredibly expensive.  In fact, such nard was often used as an investment because it was portable, required no maintenance, and was easily marketable.

Not only that—the amount of perfume Mary poured on Jesus’ feet, an entire pound, was worth the equivalent of a year’s worth of a laborer’s wages.  If you took a year’s worth of the current minimum wage of about $7.25 per hour for forty hours a week for fifty weeks, the total is $14,500—and that is just a very rough estimate of the value of the nard Mary poured on Jesus’ feet.  In addition, although in that setting it would have been considered unseemly for a woman to have her hair unbound, Mary not only had her hair unbound, she used her hair to wipe Jesus’ anointed feet.

John adds, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” and it is likely that John, and everyone else there that night, never forgot that overwhelming fragrance.  Moreover, the fragrance from such a large amount of such a powerful perfume would have lingered for many days.

As you know, of all our senses, our sense of smell is the most powerful when it comes to triggering memories, the most quickly linked to emotional recollection.  Maybe you have experienced this when you have been away from your grandparents’ house for a long time, and when you enter the front door the fragrance of your grandfather’s pipe tobacco or your grandmother’s cooking immediately takes you back to your childhood.

The fragrance of freshly mown grass can immediately take you back to a childhood baseball or football game.  The fragrance of a certain perfume or cologne can immediately remind you of a date you had with someone many years ago.  As C. S. Lewis observed in his poem “On Being Human,” a fragrance can cause a “tremor on the rippled pool of memory” (Poems, p. 35).  Your brain can accurately distinguish and remember approximately ten thousand specific smells.

When our kids were little it caught me off guard when I felt an unexpected emotional reaction when I would smell the fragrance of a new box of Crayola Crayons or a box of Barnum’s Animal Crackers—having not smelled those since my own childhood.  Some of you may remember Toucan Sam from the Kellogg’s Fruit Loops commercials in the 70’s—as he would sing, “Follow your nose, it always knows.”  Of course, Toucan Sam was right, and of course, Fruit Loops remains the ultimate “healthy” cereal, but I digress.

The power of the sense of smell to trigger a memory or an emotional response is sometimes referred to as the Proust phenomenon, named after the modernist French writer Marcel Proust (1871-1922).   In Swann’s Way, the first volume of his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time the narrator takes a bite from a madeleine cookie and the smell and taste immediately take him back into time as long-forgotten memories of his childhood come flooding back:

And suddenly the memory returns…The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cook’s windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. 

He continues:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection (61, italics mine).

Sometimes a fragrance immediately brings back positive memories that evoke nostalgia, but other times it brings back traumatic memories, and can literally trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.  Someone who has not been in a hospital for years may take a loved one there and upon entering the Emergency Room smell something that results in an expected wave of panic because of something traumatic they experienced in a hospital many years earlier.

And the universally agreed upon worst stench of all is the stench of death.

But that is where the gospel comes in, for in Jesus Christ the stench of death is replaced by the fragrance of life.  Over the years I have become quite fond of opening the church on Easter morning because the beautiful fragrance of the lilies that permeates the sanctuary reminds me that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that therefore death is not the end of the story.

After Mary’s overwhelmingly costly and moving act of worship Judas Iscariot complains that the nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor.  John notes that Judas actually had a different motivation, that Judas said that “not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.”  Jesus speaks up in Mary’s defense and reveals the deeper meaning of her act of worship, “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:5-7).

You may remember Luke’s account of Jesus visiting the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary earlier and that as Martha scurried about waiting on everyone Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened.  In response to Martha’s critical words toward Mary, Jesus said, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

That night in Bethany Mary sensed that something awful was going to happen to the One who had shown her “grace upon grace” and raised her beloved brother from the dead.  She had heard the rumors in about the conspiracy of the religious leaders to have Jesus arrested and killed.  Mary, who had earlier “chosen the better part,” now chose to anoint Jesus’ feet with the nard and wipe them with her hair.   Jesus knew the deeper significance of this.

Several days later the religious leaders successfully carried out their conspiracy to have Jesus arrested and killed.  And yet throughout his suffering it is likely that Jesus could still smell the faint odor of the nard Mary had lavished on his feet which would have reminded him that not everyone wanted him killed, that there were people like Mary who loved him.  Moreover, as Jesus hung on the cross it is very likely that John, the only disciple at the foot of the cross, could smell the lingering fragrance of the nard that had once filled the house that night, and that it triggered the memory of Jesus’ words about being anointed for his burial.

Seven centuries before Christ the great Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7).  On the cross the beautiful feet of the One who brought that good news were nailed, but even amidst the stench of death the fragrance of life remained.

And because of his resurrection, Jesus, Your God, still reigns.  And in the same way Mary lavished the nard on Jesus’ feet, Jesus lavishes grace, lavishes mercy, lavishes forgiveness, lavishes healing, lavishes unconditional love upon you.  This includes all the aspects and events in your life that Proust referred to as “so long abandoned and put out of mind” or “broken and scattered.”

The stench of death has been replaced by the fragrance of life.

Scripture tells us, “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).  In other words, we are all Mary’s who have been given grace upon grace by Jesus are all called to spread the fragrance of the gospel, the fragrance of life, throughout the world.

One day all of us will fall down at the feet of our Risen King in gratitude for the grace he has lavished on us, in gratitude for bringing all of us back from the grave.  The stench of death will be eternally replaced by the fragrance of life, and that fragrance of life will fill the entire house of heaven.

Amen.