I ran across something while do research for this sermon that really got me thinking. The question the author of the article asked was so off the wall that it just grabbed my attention and made me chuckle. And what was this question? Well, are you ready for it? It was: “What did Jesus smell like?” Or maybe the better question should be: “What DOES Jesus smell like?”
You know, smell is one of the most powerful senses we have for bringing back memories. When I walk out onto our parking lot, I am reminded of hot summer days spent at various amusement parks. When I walk past a freshly mown lawn, it reminds me of summer afternoons with nothing to do except mow that huge hill in the back yard. Freshly mown lawns remind me of a simpler time. And possibly a more strange one is the smell of sulfur of a match being lit. That smell will always remind me of my grandma, not in a bad way, but she always smoked Lucky Strikes and I will always remember the smell of her lighting a match. I grew up Roman Catholic so the smell of bees’ wax candles is just the way a church should smell. And incense will always remind me of funerals. I think you could blindfold me and take me to a Catholic church and I would be able to tell you where I was. Possibly not the name of the church, but that it was a Catholic church. Smells shape our lives. Some of our strongest memories are attached to smells, so I guess asking what Jesus smells like is not so strange after all.
In the gospel reading for today, John makes a point of telling us that the house was filled with the smell of the perfume. Why would the author of the gospel add this little account? It could be that he was just adding color to the account, but there is probably more to it than that. One thing that we shouldn’t for get about this story is the people who are sitting at the table. Of course we have Mary and Martha, but we also have Lazarus, the same Lazarus, who, just a short time before, was in a tomb. This would also be the same Lazarus of whom, Martha, his sister, said there would be a stench if they rolled the stone away from the tomb. So, upon hearing about this episode, we should already primed to think of death as something that is, if not bad, then at least something that stinks.
But when Mary puts the perfume on Jesus’ feet, we are told that its fragrance filled the whole house. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the world “fragrance” I think of something that smells good. So the author of John is making sure we have this “image,” for lack of a better word, of a wonderful fragrance filling the house. However, the next thing that Jesus says is so very jarring; Jesus says that Mary is preparing him of death. (I would love to have the sound effect of a car skidding to a stop right here!) A wonderful fragrance in preparation for death? Didn’t we just learn a few chapters ago that death was something that was full of stench? If death and the tomb stinks, then why would Jesus talk about his death while being surrounded by the fragrance of perfume?
Well, Jesus is giving us a new thought, a new feeling, a new smell for death. Jesus is changing our thoughts about what death is. We have already been primed to view death in a new way with Lazarus being at the table. Just having him sitting at the meal should clue us in that things are changing. The man, who was dead, in the tomb, stinking of death, was sitting at the table, dining with those around him. The view of death as a final end was being broken. Now, this wasn’t the final breaking of death, because Jesus had not yet risen to never die again, but it was foretaste of what was to come. In Lazarus sitting there, the finality of death had to be questioned. And it is in this questioning of death that we find the sweetness, the fragrance of the perfume. What once was thought of as an eternal end has changed. The stench of a final end has been changed to an odor of sweetness. The chains that were to be our final end had begun to break.
As we move through Lent, we are coming to the time when we start looking forward to the great celebration of Easter. We start smelling the perfume of Easter lilies, honey-glazed ham, and chocolate rabbits. We start thinking of Christ and his resurrection. We start to live our lives in the joy of our sure and certain forgiveness. And this is not a bad thing to do. I am sure Jesus would want us to revel in the gift of forgiveness and life we have been given. But when it comes to the season of Lent, we are not quite yet to the Resurrection. We have a bit of a ways to go yet. We still have Good Friday to go through. We have the sweet fragrance of the resurrection, but just like Mary, we need to be preparing for Christ’s death. We need to realize that the gifts that we receive were bought at a price. Just because the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume does not mean that Jesus does not have to die. Christ still goes through death and is placed in the tomb. But he does not stay in the tomb; he does not rot in the tomb. He is raised from the dead and it is this, Christ’s resurrection, that the sweet fragrance of the perfume reminds us. It is this joy after the sadness of his death, the fragrance of perfume after the stench of the tomb, the gift of forgiveness after the strictness of the law, which should impress itself on our memories.
Mary’s extravagant gift of perfume left a lasting memory on those in the house. Some like Judas would say that she went too far. But Jesus says that it is a good thing that she does. When we encounter the world, what impression do we make? Does our witness of Jesus to the world leave a fragrance of life and forgiveness to those we encounter? Do we show to the world the extravagant love that we have received, even if some may say we have gone too far? Or does our witness of Jesus just leave people with the stench of death and the tomb? Do we believe more in the ways of the world, the ways that leave only the stench of the tomb, or do we place our faith, our trust, our very lives, in the care of our savior, Christ?
I would hope that the fragrance of Mary’s perfume fills our lives. That the fragrance would not only remind us of the death that Christ endured, but his glorious resurrection that brings us eternal life. I would pray that we remember the gift that is given to all of us. I pray that the fragrance of Christ’s love can fill our nostrils and fill our lives. I pray that the fragrance will be there to remind us of the promise that has already been fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I pray that that fragrance is so imprinted upon our lives that just one whiff of it transports us into Christ’s presence in the same way bees wax reminds me of churches or the sulfur of a match bring up the presence of my grandma.
You know, I just realized that I haven’t answered the question that I asked at the beginning of the sermon! Well, I asked some friends what would Jesus smell like, and I think a good friend hit it right on the head: She said that Jesus smells “like home.”