Sermon on John 12: 1-8; Salem English Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN; March 21, 2010
[Note: the scent of spikenard was an essential part of this sermon as it was preached. It is available in essential oil form, or could be found cheaper in Indian groceries, as the plant is harvested mostly in India and China. I used essential oil and both diffused it throughout the worship space, as well as passed it around the congregation in its bottle for people to get a closer smell.]
Let us pray: Creating God, you have given us our five senses to appreciate your wondrous world around us. In this Lenten time, help us to walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering to you. Send now your Spirit into our midst, we pray, that we might come closer to that blessed and eternal mind of Christ. Through his name we pray, Amen.
It seems so basic to living, these five senses that we are given. Some live with challenges to them, some live without one or more of them. One constant throughout life is that we experience the world through the senses we have. And yet it seems rare that we stop to appreciate our senses in their relation to our faith lives and journeys.
Age may dull or sweeten some of our senses. Surgeries or other correctives may fix flaws and allow us to see or hear what we have been missing. We might lose one or another sense through illness or injury. The sight we might have relied on more as a young person may grow into deepened sense of hearing in later years as that sight fades. We might develop new tastes that we never thought we would have, or lose such basic abilities of sense that we always thought we would have. Senses, so basic, are yet vital and changing.
This week, one sensuous line from today’s reading particularly struck me: “and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”
Here in the house of Lazarus, Jesus was being prepared for the last and most difficult leg of his journey to the cross. This moment in Jesus’ life is so important, that it appears in all four Gospels, although with some significant differences in each account. Indeed, only here in John do we get this detail: “And the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”
In John’s telling of it, Jesus is being given a dinner party in his honor after raising Lazarus from the dead, which he had just done to the glory of God. Mary and Martha are there, and Lazarus himself, quite the greatest miracle of Jesus’ brief ministry. Those who mourned Lazarus have been comforted by his being raised from the dead, and many are now believing that Jesus is indeed the son of God through this very miracle.
Mary does what Mary does best—she immediately goes to sit at the feet of Jesus. But this time, she goes way overboard, and pours a whole jar of expensive perfumed oil on his feet—more than an extravagance—and something that probably made everyone present gasp in surprise. I can hear more than one of them saying “What is this woman doing??!?” Indeed, Judas feigns moral outrage at such an apparent waste. But no, this is no wasteful time: it is the time of anointing the “anointed one” with precious oil to prepare him for his ultimate, inexorable fate.
“And the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”
Smell seems to me the most neglected of the senses. If you were given the choice of what sense to keep, your sight, hearing, or smell, I cannot imagine many would sacrifice sight or hearing for the ability to smell. And when have you ever heard of one who provided “nose-witness testimony” in a court of law? We can be just as mistaken in what we think we have seen, as in what we think we have smelled, so why is it not given equal status as eye-witness testimony? We know the geniuses of painting and sculpture, of music, of cooking and cuisine, but who are the smell geniuses? Where is their place in the pantheon of human greatness?
In contrast to the great importance placed on all other senses, I would say that smell is the most evocative and powerful of all our senses, reaching the deepest parts of ourselves, bypassing our rational understanding and going straight to the most elemental, animal part of ourselves, awakening deep memories, or opening up new worlds in our imaginations.
When I think of it, this last week was the first time I’ve ever gone out of my way to get a particular fragrance, when I ordered through the internet some essential oil of spikenard, the smell that you are smelling now, the one which filled the house that Jesus was in.
I got excited thinking about being able to make that deepest of sense connections with the place where Jesus was that night. Because, think about it: even though the house itself can no longer be seen, the voices of Jesus and his friends can never be heard, the dinner can never be eaten again, and the feeling of Mary’s hair wiping in the ointment can never be felt exactly in the same way, the two things that exist still about that night, besides the eternal living Christ, are what was written about it, and this particular scent. What we are smelling now is without any doubt the same scent that Jesus smelled that night, a smell that no doubt stayed with him through that last, memorable week of life as we know it. Through this scent, we enter into the mind of Christ in a way no other experience can bring us.
“And the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Smells can fill a space, in pleasant and unpleasant ways, much like light and sound, transmitting barely-visible particles from their origin to deep into our bodies. Smell transcends time and space with an immediacy that no other sense can match.
Take a moment in your imagination just to be with Jesus in this time and place, imagining what it would be like to be there with him, what the light, flickering low that evening, lighting less of the house than the smell would reach, with those surprised guests who thought they saw something wasteful, when actually they saw Jesus in life being prepared for death. Let the sense world of this scene come alive to you as I read this passage once again.
Question: How does your sense of smell, or your other senses, help you on your journey of faith? What scents particularly make you come alive, or link you to other times and places?
[Read John 12: 1-8]
[Read John 12: 1-8]