Sensing Lent: Smell
April 3, 2022 – Rev. Drew Stockstill
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what
Annointed by Nigel Groom was put into it.) Jesus said,“ Leave her alone.
She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
“Leave her alone. She bought it for the day of my burial.” But Jesus was not dead. He was very much alive, eating dinner with his friends. What Mary does, she had been expecting to for Jesus after he died. Jesus had been preparing his followers for his death. He knew the time was coming soon, but those closest to him had not really processed this. They didn’t understand. But Mary did and she had spent a whole year’s worth of money to buy the costliest perfume to prepare his body for the grave.
One of our very good friends is a woman who is a part of the Orthodox Jewish community. She belongs to a special group of women in her synagogue who do today what Mary did. When someone in her community dies these women prepare the body for burial according to the ancient tradition. She cleans the body and anoints it with oils and perfumes. It is intimate, sacred, and a final dignifying gift for a beloved member of the family of faith. Mary was prepared to do this for Jesus. But he was still very much alive when she broke open the bottle of costly perfume made of pure nard (an aromatic ointment made from plants and flowers.)
The house was filled with the fragrance. The smell overwhelming, as were Mary’s actions, pouring it all on Jesus’ feet as he reclined at the table, kneeling behind him, wiping his feet with her hair. The smell was overpowering. Mary was overpowering. Judas, one of Jesus’ followers, was offended by it all. He got upset but Jesus defended Mary. “Leave her alone.” And then, “you will not always have me with you.” Jesus was speaking of his death. Of the days ahead after he died, when they would have to go on without him. His friends and family would miss him, the way we miss our loved ones when they die. But thanks to Mary, even though they wouldn’t be able to reach out and touch Jesus, whenever they smelled perfume, or the scent of flowers, or aromatic oil, they would remember him. Through the sense of smell, they would time travel back to this moment with Jesus. As the smell of the perfume filled the house, Jesus knows, they will not always have him with them, but they will have this moment, this fragrant, holy memory: a reminder of his costly love, a reminder of his sacrifice.
It’s called a Proustian moment, how a smell triggers a memory. It’s named for a moment in a novel by the early 20th century French writer, Marcel Proust. A Proustian moment is when a sense triggers a rush of memories. Scientists have confirmed the powerful link between smell and memory.
The part of the brain that handles smell, is called the olfactory bulb. It is this thing in the front of the brain that sends the information about what we smell directly to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, and these are the parts of the brain related to emotion and memory. In this sermon series on the senses, we have said over and over that God created us as sensory beings. God knit us together in our mothers’ wombs and with great intention created a direct route between our sense of smell and our memory and emotion. Certain memories linger within us like the certain scent that hangs in the air.
“Love lingers,” said poet Richard Fife, “Her perfume
I smell all around me. Her voice I hear soothingly in my dreams where she still lives. Her touch awakens my skin and my soul. Her smile is etched in my mind where it warms my heart. Her pain speaks to me of her courage, the strength of her last days. Her gentleness is reflected in those who gave her care. She vanishes. And I am overwhelmed with grief. But her love lingers and gives me strength.
Love lingers, but Jesus will not. So, “leave her alone,” he says, “You won’t always have me with you,” but you’ll always have this memory and may it give you strength.
There is a rabbinic saying based on Ecclesiastes 7:1, “The fragrance of a good perfume spreads from the bedroom to the dining room; so does a good name spread from one end of the world to the other.” In the Bible a perfumer is a highly respected artist. They create perfumes used in sacrifice and other holy ceremonies, because the Bible tells us that not only are humans sensory creatures, God is a sensory God.
Noah Sacrificing after the Deluge, oil on canvas by Benjamin West, 1800
In Genesis 8, after God saved Noah and his family from the flood, Noah built an altar to the Lord and made a burn offering of meat to God. The Bible says, “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, he said, ‘I’ll never again curse the ground because of man.” God loves the smell of BBQ so much that it made God want to keep us around. A perfumer is an artist whose art helps people connect with God, creating smells in worship that please God. Psalm 141:2 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, God.” God desires the experience of our prayers as much as God enjoys incense. We are made in the image of a God who delights in the senses. Proverbs 27:9 says, “Oil and perfume make the heart glad.”
We know this, that smells effect our mood. Does anyone like to light certain smelling candles in the fall or around Christmas? Does anyone have a favorite air freshener? Is there a perfume or cologne that makes you feel a bit extra for a special event? In our house joy increases measurably the moment the smells of a hot pizza come through the front door. Certain smells make the heart glad.
Last week Steve reminded me of John Denver’s song “You Fill Up My Senses.” It was one of Karen’s favorites. I turned it into today’s prayer of confession. Denver loved to ski and he wrote the entire song on the ten-minute ride on the ski lift to the top of Aspen Mountain in Colorado. He said he was just filled with the total immersion in the beauty of the colors and sounds that filled all his senses. Our senses are a powerful source of emotions that stir love, admiration, gratitude, awe. As we heard from the prophet Isaiah, “Pay attention, I am doing a new thing and now it springs forth, do you not sense it?” And as Denver sings, “You fill up my senses, like a night in a forest like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain, like a storm in the desert, like a sleepy blue ocean. You fill up my senses. Come fill me again.”
We are given the gift of smell that we may perceive the glory of God. We have this gift of smell that a certain aroma that God sends your way may remind you of a moment of love, a moment you felt secure, a moment around a table, a moment in the arms of someone who made you feel safe and cherished, a moment of awe and beauty. God gives us the sense of smell that we don’t forget that even now God is doing amazing works if only we can perceive them.
But there is something else that is amazing about the sense of smell. It is something that we can experience without being in the presence of whatever it is. You have tried to follow a scent. Some smell came across your noses and it brought you to your feet and you went around sniffing the air. What is that smell? Where is it coming from? Unlike the sense where you have to be able to be near enough to something to see or touch or taste it, smell and also hearing are senses we can experience with some distance. My friend Sarah Wiles was thinking about the story of Mary pouring out the perfume on Jesus. And how angry Judas got. And how even after supper was over and they all went their ways, Judas had to go home with his clothes still smelling of perfume. It would take a while for the scent of Mary’s act of love to leave him, and his shame and anger. Those things linger too.
Spending enough time with someone and you may begin to pick up their scent. That means that all of us, all people, are covered in the smell of God. Every single creature on earth was made by God and so we are marked with God’s holy aroma. The Apostle Paul confirms this in 2 Corinthians 2 when he teaches we spread the fragrance of Christ and we are the smell of Christ to God. The church is the body of Christ. We have taken on his smell. When God smells us, he smells his son. And when any of us wander, well thanks be to God that we carry his scent.
One of my best friends in Kenya was a German woman who was a social worker. I once went to Germany to visit her and meet her family. She took me to meet one of her best friends, a woman
named Anna who had a dog, Jack, trained in search and rescue. Jack had a remarkable sense of smell. When there was a disaster and someone was missing, or buried under a collapsed building, or lost in the snow, Anna and Jack were called on to help find them. All Jack needed was the scent of the missing person. So a loved one would bring Jack a piece of clothing and Jack would go to work to search for this lost beloved. Anna asked if I wanted to see Jack at work. Of course, I did. So, she asked for my jacket and gave me five minutes to hide somewhere on her big property. I found a barn in her back yard and hid in a dark corner. After five minutes in charged Jack. He found me, he nuzzled me and pranced, his tail wagging excitedly and waited for Anna to come to the rescue and bring his treat.
So powerful is smell, it can remind us of memories long past, it can bring us into the physical presence of a loved one who has died, it can fill us with joy, or bittersweet sadness. So powerful is the gift of smell it can remind us of all these holy moments, all moments where God was also.
And so powerful is God’s sense of smell that there is no place we can go where he will not find us. There is no dark place where he will not follow the scent of his child to find us. Even if you feel far from God, you are never so far that God will not come for you, greeting you with joy, and carry you home. That is true for everyone here, it is true for everyone one on earth for all are made by God and carry the smell of God’s holy family. It is the smell of table set with your favorite meal, the smell of a garden bursting with new life, the smell of a loving adult when we were safe in their arms, the perfume of the costliest grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.